Auntie Claire de Lune (Chapter One)

August 13, 2009

Pretty Sunset

“It’s just that you are dreamer,” said Auntie Claire-Next-Door. “There is nothing wrong with being a dreamer. I too, was so as a child. My mother used to tease me and call me  ‘Claire de Lune’, which means ‘Moonlight’ Claire and was her way of saying that I was a moony girl, mooning around when I should have been studying.

“‘Mooning’ is an English expression. My mother often spoke English to us as she wanted me to become an accomplished young lady. When I was a girl, it was not enough to be from a good family. It was also necessary to be accomplished.”

The girl became restless as she wanted to go home and look up the meaning of “accomplished” before she forgot it. She also did not understand the meaning of a ‘good family’ as she had supposed that all families were good. What made a family bad? Was it when the children were excessively naughty, or something worse, like the father was a thief (a gonif), or the mother a ‘Lazy South African’ (something her mother despised, which meant a lady who did not wash her own underwear, but gave it to the maid, or who sat all day drinking tea, or worst of all, let the maid do the cooking).

She did not want to ask Auntie Claire about good families as she often asked too many questions and the adults grew irritable. At school the teachers grew more than irritable. They acted as if asking questions about the ‘rules’ was the cheekiest, most unmannered, badly-brought-up thing a little girl could do. Children should be seen and not heard.

True, Auntie Claire never showed the least impatience when she asked questions, but answered them slowly and clearly and nodded in approval at her curiosity, but she did not want to push things as she was afraid she would Outstay Her Welcome (the height of rudeness according to her mother), and besides, she might get distracted by the answer and forget to hurry home and look up “accomplished” in Uncle Frank’s dictionary. She was learning the dictionary, and was on the A’s.

So she said goodbye to her friend, and crossed the back stoop to their kitchen door. Her mother said that it was ‘inappropriate’ (the new words just kept on coming and coming and kept her too busy for homework) to call Auntie Claire her friend.
“You are a little girl. An almost-nine-year-old cannot call an adult her friend. It is not respectful.”

But the thing was, when she was young, only seven-years-old, she prayed and prayed for God to send her a friend. Or even Jesus, who was a very magic person that they talked about in prayers and bible class at school. At home they did not talk about him at all, except to say that they were Jews and did not believe in him. Still, she was covering all possibilities, and everyone else had a friend. So God (or Jesus) introduced her to Auntie Claire-Next-Door and the two of them had Serious Conversations. Now the closest person she could call a friend was Auntie Claire, but that was not really accurate (she looked that up yesterday) as Auntie Claire was not an appropriate (another new word; still on the A’s) age for friendship.

Auntie Claire said that Serious Conversations should be held in a civilized fashion, accompanied by coffee or cocktails, depending on the hour.

She did not want to be rude or ungrateful or behave like an unwelcome guest and say that she did not like the coffee. Auntie Claire drank very black coffee in little thin cups, unlike her family who drank tea like South Africans. Auntie Claire was German. The coffee was so bitter, even with the addition of real cream poured from a lovely silver pot shaped like a boat.

When she had wrinkled her nose a bit, Auntie Claire assured that she would get used to it.

“It’s an acquired taste,” she said.

She knew what ‘acquired taste’ meant (A’s).

“Listen to her; she’s swallowed the dictionary,” the girls at school said. (She hated school.) It was useless to explain that she did not swallow the dictionary, but only read it. Explaining things to rude and ignorant people only made you tired.
Luckily, all the new words today were A’s. Back in her bedroom, she crawled under her bed and pulled out the cardboard box from Ouma’s house, with Uncle Frank’s school and university books. Ouma said she should take the box because she was crazy about reading. She could read since she was four. Her mother said that that was what made her impossible at school; she was bored. ‘Incorrigible’ and ‘insubordinate’ her report said. She had to skip to the I’s for those two.

In the box her favorites were on top. The Oxford dictionary, ‘Tales of Shakespeare’ which came in separate books by a lady and gentleman called Charles and Mary Lamb. So far she had read ‘As You Like It’, her favorite of all, A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream (second favorite), ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (sad, sad, sad), ‘Taming of the Shrew’ (funny) and ‘Merchant of Venice’ (too difficult). Another really difficult book was ‘Myths of Greece and Rome’, which she struggled with, but she loved the pictures; beautiful sculptures of mostly naked ladies and gentlemen, and she really wanted to understand it, so when she reached the end, she went back to the first page and began again. When she was in standard-1 they gave her a prize at the end of the year; a child’s edition of Greek and Roman myths. She was outraged. “Its a little kid’s book,” she complained to Myrna who shared the double desk with her. Myrna told Miss Brooker and Miss Brooker made her stay after school and have a talk. Miss Brooker liked her even less than before. That’s when ‘insubordinate’ and ‘incorrigible’ came in the summer holidays report.

Because she was fascinated by the naked pictures, she sometimes went into the cupboard in the dining room where her father kept some medical books. She made sure to do it when her father was away in his surgery and her mother was having her afternoon nap, because her father became purple and shouted when anyone touched his things. Even the messy pile on his bedside chair. He went crazy when the maid tidied it. She only did it once. But the pictures in the medical books were ugly and scary. She saw that Greek Gods were much more beautiful than real people; especially sick ones.

Since reading the Myths she changed her mind about being a foundling; something she had believed when she was younger. Now she believed that she was Danae, whose father, King Acrisius, locked her up in a tower of bronze. This made more sense as firstly, this proved she had royal blood, secondly her father acted just like King Acrisius and would not let her go out and play when he was around (“she never does any schoolwork and she’ll just pick up a ghastly South African accent from those kids”), and the hopeful part; someday Apollo would arrive in a shower of gold and save her.

Auntie Claire said that it was just fine to believe she was Danae as the myths were about Archetypes (yes, another A), and we were supposed to relate to them.
“It is unpleasant, but not so serious in the long run that you dislike school. You are providing yourself with a classical education, anyway.”

#

The next time she visited next door Auntie Claire let her ‘explore’ a bit while she cooked something called Spaetzle in the kitchen.

“It’s all right to explore when you have permission. All children are curious. Just do not touch anything in Klaus’ room.”

Klaus was Auntie Claire’s husband. He slept in a different room next to Auntie Claire’s. No one she knew or had ever visited had parents who slept in separate rooms. Herr Klaus Brecht did not even live with his wife. He lived on his farm in South West Africa and only visited once a year or so.

She was sure that Auntie Claire must be relieved to have her own room because Herr Brecht’s room was so dark you could hardly see anything. It had huge, heavy, dark brown furniture, a dresser with a big brass mirror and brushes, and shaving things in tortoiseshell. The most scary thing was a rug on the floor with a poor dead bear’s head, with shiny glass eyes and big, fierce teeth. Next to Herr Brecht’s bed was a table with a photo of the ugliest man she had ever seen. He had black, greasy looking hair (didn’t his mother teach him to wash his hair once a week when he was a child?) and a very thin, silly-looking moustache that grew from under his nose down to his very cross mouth.

Once she had heard her parents talking about this very picture.

“My good God, he has a picture of Hitler in his room!” whispered her mother, aghast. The wall between her parents’ room and the girls’ bedroom was pretty thin, and she listened to her parents’ conversations all the time, especially when they were fighting.

“They are Nazis. Oy gevalt! And they have the nerve to call you, a Jew, to come and treat them when they are sick.”

“It’s the husband that’s a Nazi,” said her father, “and besides, I took an oath.”
She wanted to ask Auntie Claire about “Hitler” and “Nazis” but the ominous note of the remembered conversation prompted her to try discretion.

“Who is in the picture in Herr Brecht’s room?” she trailed back into the kitchen and stood twisting her pigtails and trying to stand on her toes and twirl at the same time like a ballerina while Auntie Claire scraped little pieces of dough into boiling water.
Auntie Claire’s mouth grew very thin and she sniffed, but only a little because she was a lady.

“A pig and an upstart; a working-class parvenu who has destroyed my beautiful country and most of the rest of Europe.”

For a moment her usually gracious hostess looked almost as fierce as the bear in Herr Brecht’s bedroom. Her face was very still and serious, more like an eagle than a bear, with her great hooded, light blue eyes looking inward, or perhaps far away. Her clear pale skin (“Three tablespoons of olive oil a day, Hannah Ada,” she advised the girl’s mother) flushed dark red over her cheekbones.

Most of the time Auntie Claire explained things in a way that was easy to understand, but every so often, her mouth would get tight and she muttered under her breath like now.

She did not understand either ‘parvenu’ or ‘upstart’ but Auntie Claire looked so sad and so cross that she decided to keep on with discretion. (“If you don’t learn discretion,” her mother warned, “no-one will like you.”)

“Move away from the sink, darling.”

Auntie Claire switched off the hot plate and carefully carried the pot of Spaetzle over to the sink where she poured the contents into a big colander.

“There!” she wiped her hands on a dish towel, “All ready.”

Now that it was safe to move again, the girl tried another pirouette. They weren’t doing pirouettes yet in ballet class, but her mother took her for her birthday to see Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin from England dance “Giselle,” the saddest ballet she had ever seen. The beautiful peasant girl went mad, and then died, and then was even more beautiful when she became a ghost in a floating white dress, and made her lover, who was sad now and sorry for upsetting her, dance and dance until he died too. The ballet made her cry and cry until she had hiccups and a runny nose and her mother said that she was “too sensitive by far” but in a tired voice.
She couldn’t do the floating part that Alicia Markova made look so easy, so she was working on pirouettes, which were hard but not floaty.

Auntie Claire was looking at her in a strange way now as she tried another spin and her dress flew up almost to her panties. Auntie Claire was looking at her thigh that had a big purple bruise where her father smacked her for being cheeky to her mother. But she knew that he was really smacking her for the bad school report. Because she couldn’t change.

Neither shoutings nor smackings helped her to change. Now you could see her father’s hand clearly as anything on her leg, fingers and all. It seemed that he could not smack the ‘her’ out of her, and it was the her in her that offended him and even terrified him, because sometimes he looked scared as well as cross when he punished her. Because she would not cry, even though she cried easily at stories and ballets and dead birds and Annie, the maid, when her stomach hurt so much that her black face went grey. She would not let herself cry, but stood very stiffly with her knees knocking, her heart racing, trembling with fear. She refused to cry, just stared at the wall in front of her until it got wobbly and steamy and melted into the mist. She kept on staring until her eyes burned and all the walls melted like when she woke up in the middle of the night and there were no walls and the bear sat guarding a big hole in the middle of her bedroom floor. She waited for the bear to come lumbering down the passage and scare the living daylights out of her father. But after many a fruitless wait, she realized that the bear only came at night, and her Dad never punished her at night because she went to bed at a reasonable hour for children.

She didn’t tell Auntie Claire that her father hit her; she was too ashamed (for him). She thought that possibly all children’s dads hit hem, but still she felt ashamed.
Auntie Claire slid her eyes sideways at the big purple hand and pursed her mouth into a small lemony pucker.

“I think we have time for a Serious Conversation,” she said, “And as it is almost the cocktail hour, why don’t we repair to the living room and have a cocktail.”
Auntie Claire made only one kind of cocktail; Gin, lime and tonic or GLT (an Acronym!). First she put some ice cubes in a long glass, and then poured some clear liquor from a beautiful cut-glass decanter. To this she added a slash of bright yellow lime juice, and finished it all off with a spritz of very fizzy water from a silver bottle with a handle on top that you pushed down to shoot the water out.

Auntie Claire explained that it was part of her education to learn to drink alcoholic beverages gracefully, only in moderation, and never, never in excess. To drink gracefully showed good breeding. To drink in excess was a sign of vulgarity and extremely unattractive in a woman. So Auntie Claire only put about two drops of gin in her glass, because she was child.

“Hey, that’s about as much as Mommy gives the canary.”

She told Auntie Claire that his mate had died and now the canary had no-one to fight with or chase around the cage. His depression made him want to die too, but Hannah Ada, her mother, kept on reviving him with droppersfull of gin or brandy. Then he was depressed and drunk, too.

Her father often said that the canary reminded him of Trevor Morris, his patient, who was chronically depressed and drunk and a drug addict. Trevor Morris was depressed over some damn woman.

“I don’t know why you tolerate him,” said Hannah Ada. “He never pays you a penny.”

“He gave me one of his watercolors,” said the doctor. “He’s a brilliant artist.”

(The doctor admired Trevor Morris because he, too, had wanted to be an artist–His watercolors were pretty good, too–but Ouma and Oupa said that that was a ridiculous notion; he was to become a doctor like his Uncle Frank, who was a professor of Medicine. “And the entire bloody family basks in his glory. Your uncle, the genius, through no fault of his own, poor man, has ruined all your lives.”).

“He’s a goddamn ruin too, your precious, brilliant artist,” sniffed his wife. “He never washes, and he stinks of booze.”

“He was ruined by that damn woman!” snapped her father.

The girl was pretending to do homework when she heard all this. She supposed that the damn woman was promise–promise? –something. (“Promiscuous” said Auntie Claire).

What with his friend, Trevor Morris, being a drunk and a drug addict, and Janie Abrams downstairs wearing too much rouge, and his weekly work at the free veedy clinic, the doctor hated promiscuous women.

“My mother says that my father doesn’t like pro-pro-promiscuous women. (That’s a hard word). Anyway, they don’t wash their bottoms and when he has to examine them in his surgery, it makes him bloody sick. But I still don’t know what promiscuous means. Why doesn’t he just say dirty?”

“A promiscuous woman,” Auntie Claire explained, “is someone who kisses lots of boyfriends without emotional involvement.”

“What’s ’emotional involvement’?”

“That is something that occurs when you are in love and care about the person you are kissing.”

“But I’ve been in love lots of times. Right back since I was young and in kindergarten.

“I loved this boy Robbie, I can still remember, he had white hair and blue eyes and I wanted him to like me too. When we had cookie-baking day he ate all my cookies and then went to play with some other children.”

“Well,” said Auntie Claire, “some men are like that. Unrequited love is very painful.”

“But nobody I fall in love with ever loves me back. It makes me suffer.”

“I would not worry about that overmuch,” soothed Auntie Claire. “Someday, someone will. I promise you.”

“But if nobody does, not even Apollo–and I know, I know, my mother says that’s my vivid imagination–I’ll end up a cross spinster like Miss Brooker.”

Auntie Claire laughed out loud and said that in the past the best cures for unrequited love were the taking of Holy Orders (not necessary at your age, I assure you) or a life of service.

That meant that if you were Goyim and loved Jesus, you became a priest or a nun, and if you were Jewish and didn’t believe in Jesus, you did lots of good deeds, like Giving to Charity (mostly the United Jewish Fund) and being kind to strangers who came to the door; feeding them a hot meal like her Bobbe in Edinburgh used to, because she never turned a stranger from her door.

“Right,” said the doctor, “First she fed them, and then she fleeced them at cards. She had IOU’s from half the bums in Edinburgh. For a supposedly honest woman, she was a damn accomplished card sharp. Beats me!”

The Serious Conversation about unrequited love made them sad enough to warrant a little cheering up, so they had a second GLT and listened to a record of a man called Arthur Rubenstein playing Chopin Mazurkas. They both loved the Mazurkas as well as the Nocturnes; Auntie Claire because they reminded her of a more civilized and gracious life, and the girl because they reminded her of the ballet and she could make up dances in her head while listening and sipping her GLT in moderation.

Auntie Claire turned from the Victrola, “These Mazurkas were recorded in 1939, the year–”

“I was born!”

“Yes, the year you were born.”

“Do you think I heard them in my mother’s stomach, so that’s why I like to dance?”

“That’s very possible.”

“But my mother said that she played Italian Opera for nine months to give me Prenatal Influence, and even though I like the music, I don’t like to sing. Miss Weber told me to sing in the back because I was out of tune.”

“What a foolish woman! That could be traumatic.”

“Yes, I think so. I’m traumatized. I’m pretty sure. I’m also pretty traumatized by my school reports. I’m always in trouble and have to leave the room and stand outside the door. I worry about being insubordinate, really I do.” (“Insubordinate”–she loved that word even if it was supposed to be bad, worse even than “disobedient”. It made so much sense. It had “bored” right in the middle.)

“Well my dear,” said Auntie Claire, “you have a sense of purpose, but not always a strong sense of duty, which you most certainly would have, had you been a little German girl.”

She went on to explain that a sense of duty was one of the best and also one of the worst of German traits.

“You question authority (something unheard of in Germany) but you will be obliged to submit, at least until you are a lot older.”

These were ‘concepts’ that were too ‘complicated’ for her. She was stuck at the C’s now. She was no longer wanted to learn the dictionary ‘chronologically’ because it was boring. Now she would just look up words that were new.

Auntie Claire explained that she had the makings of a “free thinker” which she did not understand. Were there people who were paid to think? (“Only professors of Philosophy”, said Auntie Claire.) She would love to be paid to think. She had so many thoughts in her head that they kept running out of her as if the plumbing in her brain had burst. Sometimes they leaked out on the pillow, boom-boom-boom and she couldn’t sleep because all the leaking thoughts spilled over onto the floor, and began creeping up the walls until the walls disappeared under their weight, and she found herself in a vast, empty space with no horizons, and there he was again, the huge bear guarding the hole in the floor.

“You have a lot to think about,” said Auntie Claire, “and it is almost time for you to go home. What about one more record, something quieter to help you think?”

“Your one! Claire de Lune.”

Although Auntie Claire had explained that “Claire de Lune” was composed by a Frenchman called Claude Debussy, from a poem by another Frenchman called Paul Verlaine, both of whom had led tragic and tumultuous lives and died fairly young (especially M. Verlaine), she preferred to think that the lovely tune belonged exclusively to her friend; rippling like water, and reminding you of something or someone far away until your throat ached and you felt sad, but happy to be sad.

#

When she got home her mother was in the kitchen, rolling dough.

Annie was in her room, next door to the kitchen, singing hymns and rubbing her legs with pumice stone. Softly, she sang in Xhosa, to the tune of “Silent Night”

“Busuku obungewele

Obuzolile

Ngabo e Bet’lehem wazalwa

ObeyiNkosi yezidalwa

Ngu Yesu ongewele

NguMntwana ongewele”

Sometimes Annie and her friends taught the girl Xhosa hymns like “Nkosi sekele i Afrika”–God save Africa. When they felt gay they taught her to Kwela during their afternoon “off time”.

Hannah Ada was pressing a round metal form with a hole in the middle into the dough. The girl kept snatching the round bits that fell out of the holes, and eating them.

“Stop that. You’ll get a tummy ache.” Her mother made a half-hearted attempt to slap her hand.

“Your father’s coming home early, to help me make doughnuts for dessert. Have you done your homework? Or have you been gossiping all afternoon with Auntie Claire?”

Hannah Ada sighed and wiped her floury hands on her apron, then pushed a bit of hair off her forehead with the back of one hand.

“Why don’t you go out and play until suppertime.”

The girl was happy because when her parents cooked together, that meant that they were being friends and were in love again. Those were the best times, and the special dishes just kept on coming; huge, pink pine mushrooms that her father gathered when he went fishing near the forest, sautéed with onions and cream; lovely, tongue-tingling pineapple beer; waterblommetjie bredie on the weekends when her father fished near the ponds and gathered the creamy-white flowers that he made into a stew with lamb and onions and potatoes; and for desert, gingery, sticky konfyt from watermelon rind, and home-made ice-cream with Hannah Ada’s chocolate sauce, rich with butter and cream. Tonight they would have doughnuts, fluffy and light and totally unlike the shop-bought ones, filling your nose with odors of hot oil and powdered sugar.

When the doctor and Hanna Ada cooked together they sang the songs dear to her mother’s heart, like “Ma Hairt’s in th’ Highlands” or “A Wee Doach an’ Doris”, and her favorite:

“Su-u-u-u-ure— by Tummel an’Loch Rannock an’ Lochaber I will go, (thumping on the down-beat)

By heather tracks w’ heaven in their wiles,

If it’s thinkin’ in yer inner hairt th’ braggart’s in ma step,–

Ye’ve niver smelt th’ tangle o’ th’ isles.”

When her parents cooked and sang together, her mother forgot the lonely life of a doctor’s wife and the fact that she never got to go anywhere, and became pretty and funny and made her husband roar with laughter until he had to wipe tears from his eyes.

#

The girl went downstairs and sat on the red stone steps to the garden and read “Just William” for the hundredth time.

Soon she saw her father, brown leather case in hand, coming up the path.

“Howzit Docta? Watsup?”

Janie Abrams was sitting on her downstairs stoop, wriggling her red-painted nails and beaming at the girl’s father.

The doctor nodded his head curtly, and did not look at her.

Janie Abrams threw back her head until you could see her long white throat and laughed and laughed, black eyes shining, big dimples in her rouged cheeks. Janie Abrams wore more rouge than anyone–even more than the colored girls. Both sides of her face were dark pink, which made her eyes blacker and her teeth whiter than ever when she laughed at the doctor as if she knew some delicious secret. Her mouth was wet and shiny with Pirate by Taboo; so red it was almost black. The girl thought she was very pretty, but the doctor hated her.

Janie Abrams flat smelled bad; the nasty odor came from the children’s room, which smelled as if someone had wee’d on the mattress every single night. While her parents had two single beds pushed together, Janie slept with Mr. Abrams in a big double bed; the only one she had ever seen.

Mr. Abrams was a chemist and had the pharmacy downstairs from the doctor’s surgery in Claremont. He wore glasses and was very tall and stooped and always looked worried.

Janie’s maid, Lettie, did the cooking. What with the cooking and the housework and the children, Lettie had too much to do and clicked her tongue all the time. When the children came into her kitchen she clicked her tongue some more and yelled “Humba!”

On Saturday nights Lettie and the gardener, Boesman, ran a shebeen in the back yard in Boesman’s room. The shebeen was under the girls’ window and she could hear Lettie and Boesman and all the other maids laughing and drinking Skokiaan and Mfula-Mfula, which Lettie made from oats and the pineapple skins that the madams threw away. Sometimes a fight would break out and one of the white people would lean out of an upstairs window and shout that they were calling the police.

Their own maid, Annie clicked her tongue and shook her head at the disgraceful goings on. She was a church-going woman and would have nothing to do with Lettie who, she muttered, was as untrustworthy as a Zulu.

“Huh!” scoffed Lettie when she heard, (gossip among the maids flourished more efficiently than the government telegraph system), “that poor Siesie is as skinny and nervous as a white woman. All those hymns are not going to put fat on her bottom or a man in her bed.”

The Abrams had three children. The eldest, Snookie, was almost eleven and once asked the girl if she would be his girlfriend when he was twelve and got his Height-Plus shoes. His sister, Neenie was seven and very fat. She had Polio when she was a baby and wore an iron thing like a corset that held her back up, and irons on her legs, too. She was overweight because of inactivity, and because Janie fed her as if food were medicine and nourishment and love enough to make her walk again. The food just made her heavier and heavier, and even more difficult for her to move at all. So she sat outside on the lawn on a rug (which also smelled a bit of wee). She stayed there all afternoon and smiled and smiled at everyone. Neenie was the nicest of Janie’s children, because the little brother, Jeffie, was a monster. Janie and Snookie thought it was cute that he was a monster and ran around and around screaming and yelling and breaking things.

“Just wait until he’s a teenager,” muttered Hannah Ada darkly.

“Perhaps his hyperactivity compensates for the poor little girl,” suggested Auntie Claire.

Some days when all the children were in the garden, they would abandon their games and surround Neenie on the rug. Sally from across the way was a Gentile and could sing in a loud, clear voice like an American Country singer. She could even yodel. She sang and yodeled for Neenie all the time. Neenie would shout with joy and clap her hands. The girl liked Neenie very much. Other than Auntie Claire, Neenie was the only person she knew who was always nice and acted as if she really liked her.

Once she asked Auntie Claire how it was that Neenie who was the nicest person got Polio and all the mean children were perfectly healthy.

“My parents say it’s a terrible tragedy.”

Auntie Claire sighed and said that that was life. She said that some of the nicest people suffered because they were learning Life Lessons, and often they were here to teach the people around them Life lessons.

“What are Life Lessons?”

“Situations that teach you things like tolerance, compassion and the desire to serve others.”

“You mean like unrequited love?”

“Hopefully, yes. That too.”

So the girl did her best to serve Neenie. She sat with her and played Old Maid and Snap with her, and ran into the street when the ice-cream cart came to get her a Polar Bear.

#

Neenie’s mother, Janie Abrams, never came outside with Neenie. She sat on her stoop all day long and watched Neenie sitting on her rug on the grass while the monster brother, Jeffie, ran around and around the garden, screaming and yelling and smashing the heads of the agapanthus with his miniature cricket bat. Janie never said a word to stop him. It was as if she was in a dream and never noticed anything at all until the doctor came up the pathway, home from his surgery. Then Janie perked up and sat straighter until her bosom pushed out, and waved at the doctor with all her fingers. She never seemed to notice that he ignored her so openly that the girl felt embarrassed for his rudeness and sorry for Janie’s humiliation. Not that Janie ever seemed to feel humiliated. She acted as if it was the funniest joke in the world.

“She’s a slut,” said Hannah Ada. The girl had her ear pressed to the wall and listened to her parents speaking in their bedroom. “Everyone knows she makes a fool of that poor man.”

The girl decided that Janie Abrams must be a Promiscuous Woman. She decided that at all costs she would avoid becoming one. She discussed it with Auntie Claire. Her mother was open to these kind of discussions, but if she spoke to her about it, it would be revealed that she had been eavesdropping; a very bad thing. There was a strict rule at their house about eavesdropping and opening other people’s letters.

She told Auntie Claire that when she was old enough to go to parties, ‘Spin the Bottle’ and kissing games were out. She decided to tell Snookie Abrams that Height-Plus shoes or no, she was going to wait for marriage. Her mother said that waiting for marriage was the best gift a woman could give her husband, and would make their wedding night a true joy. Her parents had decided to ‘discuss sex openly’ before the children heard distorted versions at school. It seemed that the practice makes perfect rule that applied to her piano and dance lessons did not apply here.

Auntie Claire listened gravely, and then said it seemed to be a wise decision.

“One should not rush into relationships at too young an age. That could prove disastrous.”

Auntie Claire knew all about disastrous relationships because her daughter, Tilda, was in one.

Tilda was a Source of Sorrow to her mother and a perpetual source of anxiety to the girl, whose first encounter with Tilda at the age of four or five, had frightened her so she had nightmares for a long time afterwards. She had been sitting out on the back stoop with the neighborhood maids who were braiding each others’ hair and rubbing their legs with Palmolive soap and pumice stone, when an apparition walked out of the next door flat. From the head down it appeared to be a big girl of about sixteen, but her face was covered with a hideous rubber mask with great glass eyes like a huge bug and a long rubber hose for a nose. The girl did not know if it was a human or a monster-elephant and she did not understand why the mask made her cold and shivery as well as frightened. She burst into tears.

“Don’t be such a baby,” called the girl-in-the-mask, whose voice came out muffled and echoey, “It’s just a gas mask, stupid. My papa got it in the war.”

The girl never much trusted or liked Tilda from that time, even though Tilda was all grown up now and went to university, and was friendly as anything to everyone. She mostly did not like her because she was a Source of Sorrow to Auntie Claire.

“She’s moved in with that bastard son-of-a-bitch,” said her mother, “her English professor. He’s fifty years old if he’s a day, and has two children older than Tilda. His wife is still there! She’s shacking up with all of them. Claire’s devastated!”

Auntie Claire never showed her devastation. When Tilda came to visit, striding down the path like a great athletic hockey-playing girl, she lifted her head up to her mother’s flat on the second floor and yodeled “Yoo-hoo!” very loud and very gaily; all of Kenilworth could hear her.

“Yoo-hoo,” called Auntie Claire back, waving from her front stoop, welcoming her like a beloved daughter and not a Source of Sorrow.

Hannah Ada called Tilda a slut too, not because she was living with her married professor, but because she came into their kitchen one day with nothing on but a pair of shorts and a bra. She was very proud of the bra and wanted to show them all, especially the doctor, how it had holes in front where her nipples poked through. Annie, the maid, clicked her tongue and shook her head. She turned to the stove and stirred her mieliepap very hard.

The doctor just looked at Tilda’s bra with no expression, a bit like he looked at Janie Abram’s big smile and said, “Very interesting.” Then he turned away and went to his ham radio in the dining room and put the earphones on. That meant he wasn’t talking to anyone.

That night Hannah Ada forced him to hear about it some more.

“If the poor woman didn’t have enough on her plate with that pig-Nazi she’s stuck with. She told me that on her wedding night he left her alone in a hotel room and went with a prostitute! Can you imagine? Something about Madonnas and whores. I still don’t get it.”

Her husband said that the story was a not-so-subtle hint that Herr Brecht was no less a monster than the working-class parvenu (there was that word again) whose photograph graced his bedside and whose lethal hysteria had mesmerized their homeland.

“Tilda’s the only family she’s got. Now the girl is pregnant and Claire is just doing her best to live with it. She has a heart condition already and that chain-smoking of hers cannot be helping.”

There was silence while the girl imagined her mother suppressing a retort about his own smoking habit, which was hardly less noteworthy than that of his patient next door.

#

The next time her mother went to Claremont, the girl took her library card with her. The librarian turned a blind eye when she visited the adult section, because she had been the youngest library card holder ever, and the two lady librarians made a fuss of her.

The library was on the same floor as the doctor’s surgery. She could visit the surgery after she looked up the meaning of “heart condition” at the library.
She felt seriously worried about Auntie Claire after she discovered what was ailing her. She felt upset enough to visit her father’s surgery next door where his nurse always kept a bag of jelly beans and licorice all-sorts in her purse.

The doctor did not approve of giving sweets to children (their teeth) but his nurse always placed her finger on her lips and offered the bag of goodies when the doctor was in the examination room and the door was closed.

Auntie Claire also gave her sweets, but hers were very different; nougat with nuts and cherries from Italy and dark chocolates called truffles from Switzerland. Just one truffle could fill you up.

“Dark chocolate,” said Auntie Claire, “is another acquired taste.” So she was acquiring it.

Auntie Claire said that the nougat and truffles were a great luxury because of the rationing during the war. South Africans did not have to ration much at all, not like the poor hungry people overseas, something her mother mentioned every time she refused to eat her cabbage, which was definitely not an acquired taste. One time her father stood over her and threatened to smack her if she did not eat her cabbage. So she forced it down and then threw up all over the dining room table. After that they let up about the cabbage.

When she told Auntie Claire about throwing up the cabbage, Auntie Claire just tutted and offered her a nougat.

“It’s not so easy to be a child,” she said. “Everyone says childhood is the happiest time of your life, but they are delusional.”

She looked up “delusional”. Since she discovered Nancy Drew, and sometimes read three books in an afternoon, she had far too little time to even think of her old alphabetical pursuit of vocabulary. Nancy Drew was far more compelling than the dictionary.

She was starting to read her mother’s library books too, historical novels and Romances. She loved the Romances, especially Beltane the Smith who lifted his lady love up onto his broad, muscular chest when he kissed her. She couldn’t even imagine kissing Snookie Abrams whose chest was skinny, and worse, he was short without the promised Height Plus-es.

All the Nancy Drews and grown-up books in the world could not help her forget that Auntie Claire had a “heart condition”. She knew she should not mention it, but it worried her so much that she asked Auntie Claire about it.
“It’s nothing,” said Auntie Claire, “and soon we will have a new baby and that will make my heart strong again.”

#

When Tilda’s new baby girl came, Auntie Claire did look a whole lot happier. Everybody admitted that the little one was adorable and when she was big enough to sit up, Tilda would bring her over and put her on the girl’s bed and let her “baby sit”.
The baby was almost as big as the flying child with the light on her back that floated by the girl’s window some nights. Her mother said the flying girl was her imagination, but Auntie Claire said she was perhaps her guardian angel. She rather hoped that Auntie Claire had the right information. She stopped mentioning the flying girl to her parents because they took her to Uncle Frank about that and her sleep-walking and her “nightmares”. Uncle Frank said she had an “over-active imagination” and was not to be allowed to read before going to bed. This was the worst punishment anyone could think up, so she kept quiet from then on–at home, at least. All the contradictions were confusing her and she was in need of a guardian angel.

“Do you have to be a Christian to believe in guardian angels?”

“I don’t think so,” said Auntie Claire, “but I am not so knowledgeable on the subject.”

“What about Jesus?”

Auntie Claire said that was a subject they could not discuss because of religious differences. She did not want to offend her parents.

“But my father hates religion. He won’t let us discuss it at all.”

“We shall have to respect that,” said Auntie Claire. “Perhaps we can talk about it when you are older.”

“But what are religious differences?”

“Different ways of believing in God.”

“Why do people have different ways of believing in God, if God is everything?”

“I am sure that God is perfectly satisfied with all the different ways.”

“Oh, you mean like different languages and countries and people of different colors?”

“Exactly, my dear. You are wise beyond your years.”

“How many years are normal to reach wise?”

Auntie Claire sighed, “Sometimes far too many.”

#

But Auntie Claire left forever when Tilda’s baby was learning to walk. Before she left, she and the girl had one more Serious Conversation.

It was mid-winter and because it was raining and cold, they were having hot cocoa instead of coffee or GLTs. Auntie Claire made the best cocoa, with a big dollop of whipped cream on the top. (Bavarian fashion, explained Auntie Claire.)

The girl had to run fast across the back stoop to Auntie Claire’s kitchen door so as not to get wet and track water all over Auntie Claire’s polished floors. But Auntie Claire put an old dishtowel inside the kitchen door so that she could drip on it and wipe her feet.

The girl had saved up so many subjects of Serious Conversation for their next visit that she almost did not know where to start. She had some gossip about Jennifer and Paul that frankly puzzled her and a complaint about Shirley that nagged at her and a huge question about forgiveness.

Auntie Claire said she should slow down and take a deep breath as they had all afternoon before suppertime to chat.

“Why don’t you start with the gossip, as gossip is rarely important even when it’s fascinating, then we can work up to the more important subjects?”

So she started with Jennifer and Paul who lived in the downstairs flat on the corner near the street.

Jennifer and Paul had a white nanny, perhaps the only white nanny in South Africa, because generally speaking, all the white nannies were in England being strict with children in smocks and button boots. It seemed that Jennifer and Paul’s white nanny was not as strict as the English kind because her charges found the time to hide from her and do things that were surely not allowed; weird ideas (mostly Paul’s ideas). For instance, Jennifer swore that her brother had hair “down there” and lay on the bed and made her cut it with their mother’s cuticle scissors and then sprinkle baby powder all over his naked bottom.

“Sies, that’s disgusting,” said the girl.

Jennifer admitted that it was disgusting, but said that Paul said he would twist the flesh on her arm and give her a “Chinese bracelet” which hurt like crazy if she refused or if she told.

Auntie Claire made a lemony face at this news and said that the girl was not to talk about it any more, because it was unsavory gossip and she, Auntie Claire, was going to have a little talk with the mother at an appropriate time.

This made the girl very nervous as she did not want Jennifer to know that she told, although, strictly speaking Jennifer had only told her not to tell Shirley. Auntie Claire told her not to worry as she would be discreet (something the girl had not yet mastered, despite her best intentions), but to keep it a secret from now on, and definitely keep the promise about Shirley.

Shirley lived in the flat on the opposite side of the courtyard from Jennifer and Paul. She had naturally curly hair that positively sprung out of her head in a cloud of ringlets that had golden glints in them when she was in the sun. Shirley spent less time outside in the sun than the other children because she practiced the piano for hours every day and did all her homework and never got into trouble except with her fierce, cross mother who was fiercer and crosser than Jennifer and Paul’s cross nanny and almost as fierce and cross as the doctor. It seemed that all the grown ups were this way, including her teachers at school. But Shirley never got into trouble at school and Hannah Ada and the doctor were always telling her to be more like Shirley. For this reason, and perhaps even more because of the naturally curly ringlets, she hated Shirley most of the time. The rest of the time she felt bad for hating Shirley, who had never really done anything bad to her, except to threaten to tell that the story she wrote for the end-of- year exam was stolen from a short story in a library book that Shirley had also read. She did sort of get an idea from the plot of the story, but she changed all the people and the important objects in it, and didn’t have time to think as the story part came at the end of the exam and she was in a hurry. She was really nervous for at least two weeks about that, and Auntie Claire said that what she did was “plagiarism” but not to worry too much as all the important plots had pretty much been used already; it was just that grown-up writers hid it better. Still, she pretty much hated Shirley for the nahnahnah way she threatened her.

Auntie Claire said that she had to forgive Shirley for being a different sort of child, one who was amenable and pleasant. She said that if she was going to insist on being a rebel, she had no right to resent the conformists of the world, who obeyed the rules. That was the price she would have to pay all her life, and if she expected people to forgive her, she must first learn to forgive.

“That’s the other thing I wanted to ask,” she told Auntie Claire, “What exactly is forgiveness? I’m confused about it.”

“Forgiveness is when you let go of the hurt that someone has caused you, and allow yourself to love them again.”

“So, it’s a good thing?”

“It’s a wonderful thing, a Christian thing.”

“So maybe I get punished for forgiveness because we are not Christian.”

“Whatever are you talking about, child?”

But the girl did not answer. She just stood on her toes on one leg and practiced pencher arabesque, holding onto the piano.

“I see that this must be a painful subject for you, even too painful for Serious Conversation. Perhaps you will feel free to discuss it later.”
But the girl knew that they were never going to discuss it because it involved eavesdropping (still a bad thing) and hard smacks from her father (an embarrassing thing).

The eavesdropping occurred after her father had smacked her and sent her to her room to think about her behavior.

“Why, in God’s name do you only beat her?” asked Hannah Ada. “You never lay a finger on the little one.”

“I can’t help it. She always forgives me. The little one is like you, she would never speak to me again.”

This was when the girl became very confused about forgiveness. The doctor never hit Hannah Ada or her sister, who she loved and hated at the same time; another confusing thing that could not be discussed with Auntie Claire, because Auntie Claire was Christian and Christians were supposed to love everyone. Except for the Dutch Reform Christians who hated black people. The English Christians pretended that they hated black people less than the Dutch Reform Afrikaners did, but they must be lying or else struggling to be better Christians. Her parents hated black people too, but they also pretended that they didn’t. They said that it was not their fault that black people were lazy and shiftless and thieves and smelled bad.

But she knew that black people smelled different because they ate different food and were very poor and never had a real bathroom, just a tin pail and yellow soap, with Palmolive soap for church and special occasions. (And no money for deodorant and 4711 cologne or Chanel Number Five like her mother).

She knew that different food made you smell different because the Indians who had the fruit store smelled like curry all the time, and the Italians, Emilio and Marco, at the coffee shop smelled like garlic and super strong after-shave.

Auntie Claire smelled the best of all (except for the colored girls with their Evening in Paris, which she loved, but her mother said was cheap and vulgar). Auntie Claire smelled of the lavender sachets that she put in her underwear drawer and Tweed, which was English and made by a man called Creed. Even her breath smelled nice; a mixture of Tweed and GLT.

Sometimes after Tilda visited and all the gay Yoo-hoos were over and she went back to the bastard son-of-a bitch professor, Auntie Claire smelled like GLT long before the cocktail hour.

#

If she had known that Auntie Claire would leave after the winter was coming to an end, and it was warm enough to play in the garden without a cardigan and sit with Neenie on the rug on the lawn, she would have broached the subject of forgiveness again, as it seemed that for her, at least, it was not such a good thing. But she left it too late.

One afternoon she knocked and knocked on Auntie Claire’s door and no-one answered. All the windows were closed and the flat seemed dark and silent, so she went downstairs.

All the grown ups were outside on the big lawn, talking very low amongst themselves. When she came up and stood at the edge of their group, one of the mothers said that Auntie Claire had died. Some of the mothers were sniffing and teary, and everybody whispered as if it was a secret or a very scary thing. They all looked sad and depressed and Janie Abrams, who was outside for once, hugged her and said that she knew that Auntie Claire was her friend and that she would miss her terribly.

The funny thing was that she did not feel sad or depressed at all, so she went onto the other lawn and sat down under the avocado tree to think about why she did not feel sad or depressed about Auntie Claire dying and going away, as this seemed to be the normal way to feel. She honestly did not feel anything, and she did not feel that she missed her. This scared her as it was one more sign that she was not normal like other people, and did not even have appropriate feelings.

Years later, when she became a woman, she remembered this, her first reaction to death, because it never changed; the idea of death remained a huge adventure, and who could resent a friend’s embarking on the adventure of a lifetime.

When she thought about it, she saw Auntie Claire floating up to the moon on a huge white cloud. She was sitting on the top of a baby grand piano in a floaty dress, holding a crystal goblet of GLT, smelling deliciously of Tweed, and listening to Arthur Rubenstein, who was also dead, playing her song.

The only thing that had changed was that Auntie-Claire-Next- Door became Auntie Claire de Lune. She could still be consulted on important subjects when you spoke to her in your head, and on clear nights she could be seen perched elegantly atop Arthur Rubenstein’s white baby grand, waving to the girl with the light on her back as she floated by the bedroom window.

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2 Responses

  1. I’m extremely grateful for any feedback you have about the stories in THE CHILD IS NOT DEAD, and I’m happy to reply to any comments you leave here.

  2. Claire Flynn SerafinDecember 16, 2014 @ 12:14 amReply

    I am Auntie Claire my nephew John always called me Auntie Claire before he died and now his brother and all his friends that are on the firer department call me it to. My girlfriend just told me how there was a book called Auntie Claire de Lune my girl friends dad calls me that. Your writing comforts me at this Christmas season. I feel my family close. Than you as you can see writing was not my strong suite. Merry Christmas I will be getting your book<3



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