February 1989

Brakes squealing, the train carrying Renee Pretorius drew into Cape Town station. She’d been travelling south since the pre-dawn hours and now it was ten past two in the afternoon. 

     Anxious to spot her great-aunt in the waiting crowd, she slid to the edge of the emerald green leather seat and peered through the window. But as the train rumbled alongside the platform, most of the faces passed in a blur. As soon as it stopped, she’d have a good look. Aunt Lena had to be there. She would never have forgotten. In any case, Renee’d had enough of this long train journey. A couple of hours after settling into the narrow, second-class bed, her sleep had been interrupted by shunting. Vaguely she became aware of clanking and jerking, the ring of a metal hammer as the wheel-tapper tested for cracks, and realized the steam-engine had been changed for diesel. After that, excitement and nerves meant she’d slept fitfully. 

     Abandoning her lookout post, she hauled her suitcase out from under the seat and dumped it at the end of the carriage. She returned to the narrow compartment to gather up her raincoat, handbag and overnight case. 

     Back at the open door of the carriage she leaned out to scan the crowd. People were milling about in a confusion of greetings and pieces of luggage. Almost at the other end of the platform, a pink net hat bobbed up and down. Surely that was Aunt Lena threading her way through the shifting throng?

     Smiling widely, Renee leaned out farther and waved. Her great-aunt flapped an enthusiastic, white-gloved hand. 

     Nearby, a porter lounged against his trolley, his gaze scouring the train for customers. At Renee’s signal he jerked to attention, tipped a finger to his cap and leaped nimbly up the steps. He swung her large and small suitcases out of the carriage and onto the platform. She sprang down after him and watched while he made a production of loading her luggage onto his trolley, pushing the bags this way and that.

     Her precious ballet shoes and practice clothes were packed in her overnight case. Thinking it might be safer if she carried that herself, she bent to pick it up.

     “Don’t worry, missie. Put it on here, too,” the porter patted the top of the pile, “and the coat. I’ll look after everything.” His leathery face creased as he flashed her a toothless grin. “No-one’ll get a chance to steal anything, I promise you.” 

     She handed the items over. 

     “Reneekie... Reneekie!”

     Under the pink hat, Aunt Lena’s curls showed blonder than Renee remembered. 

     “There you are, my skat. I’m sorry to be late. The traffic.” She gave her head a quick shake. “And on a Sunday! It’s not normal. I think there must be trouble.”

     Renee paused. “Trouble?”

     “Yes, you know.” Aunt Lena waved a careless hand. “Unrest—a demonstration, or a riot or something. But never mind that.” She leaned forward to plant a well-cushioned kiss on her grand-niece’s lips. “Welcome to Cape Town. I hope you had a good journey?”

     “Oh yes.” 

      “My how you’ve grown. You’re seventeen now, ? And as big as me. Not that that’s so big is it?” 

     She swivelled on her high-heeled shoes and set off, back the way she’d come. It seemed to Renee the kiss had marked the last moment Aunt Lena’s mouth was closed. She chatted and gestured the whole length of the platform, a cheerleader heading a procession of two. Renee caught a few phrases, snatches thrown over her shoulder.

     “...come to church... the big city at last... watch out... we’ll go together.”

     They marched along the platform and through the main concourse with its huge, high paintings of Voortrekker scenes. Renee lagged behind to take a look. Pa, she knew, would have stopped to explain each historic incident and elaborate on the bravery of those Dutch pioneers, determined to find good farming land and maintain their right to self-determination in the face of the English threat of domination.

     Her great-aunt seemed oblivious to having lost one of her parade. With light, rushing steps Renee caught up. The three emerged into the dazzling heat of the afternoon and crossed the road towards a barrage of grey stone office towers.

     Even though the modern buildings were spread out, this wasn’t the beautiful city Renee had anticipated. Not so far, at least. And the wind! It puffed about her like a naughty trumpeter, blowing erratic bursts, trying to flip up her skirt. She freed one hand to hold it down. If only Ma had allowed her to wear trousers. But Renee hadn’t wanted to push her luck. Miraculous enough she’d actually persuaded her parents to let her come.

     Aunt Lena stopped beside a beige Toyota. 

     “Just imagine, if the city hadn’t pushed back the sea to develop the Foreshore, we’d be walking on the beach right now.”  

     No sign or scent of the ocean from here. Instead, a strange, acid smell hung in the air. It stung Renee’s throat and made her eyes feel like prickly pears. And the hubbub. Was that shouting and shrieking she heard, or were these normal city scents and sounds?

     Her great-aunt seemed unconcerned.

     “I’m going to take you straight away up to the hostel,” she said breathlessly as she unlocked the car doors and tottered around to open the boot, “so we can get you settled in. It’s good that you’ll be staying there. Those university residences, I tell you, they’re immoral. Hot beds of sin.” The lid opened with a groan. She indicated the porter should start loading the luggage.

     Renee wondered what a hot bed of sin might look like. Nothing she’d ever seen, for sure. She doubted living far away from campus would be a good thing. 

     “It’s going to take quite a bit of time for me to get to and from the University of Cape Town ballet school.” 

     “Still,” Aunt Lena insisted, “much better you’re with other good Afrikaans meisies. At Huis Marta they’ve got girls studying to be nurses and teachers. All white of course.”

     Co-habitation amongst the different ethnic groups was illegal.

     “Of course.” 

     It would be easier to be amongst other Afrikaans speakers. She’d be less likely to come up against the kind of prejudice many English people carried towards them. This was due to the split in ideologies caused by the Apartheid policies. Here, in the city, there were likely to be more Engelse

     “And the matron will look after you nicely,” Aunt Lena added. 

     The porter had been leaning on his trolley, listening as if this were his entertainment for the day.

      “Here.” Aunt Lena opened her bag and took out her purse. Immediately, he straightened his face and his back.

     A raggedy street urchin raced up, hands cupped in front of his scrawny chest.

     “Please, missus, give me twenty cents for bread.”

     Aunt Lena picked out a fifty-cent piece and pressed it into the boy’s waiting palm. A grin and a nod of thanks and off he skipped. She turned to reward the porter, who tipped his finger to his cap, and with a twirl and a swagger, pushed the trolley back towards the station.

     Stifling heat hit Renee as she opened the car door. The seat was almost as hot as the top of the coal stove back at the farm. She tucked as much of the material of her skirt underneath her as she could. 

     “At least the southeaster isn’t so strong as yesterday,” Aunt Lena continued, climbing in. “Of course, February’s our hottest month. In general we’re glad to have a bit of wind.” She wriggled to settle herself comfortably in the driver’s seat, placed her hands side by side near the top of the lambswool cover of the steering wheel and turned the key. The car leapt into purring life. “But the heat won’t bother you, my child. Not after the Karoo. My jinna, I don’t know how your mother survives in that place, truly I don’t.”

     She wound her window all the way down. Renee followed suit.

     “That place” was Graspan, where the train had made a special stop at the siding to pick Renee up. Ever since waving goodbye to her parents, she’d felt as if a warm, comfortable overcoat had been stripped from her, leaving her naked and exposed. Here in the big city, for the first time in her life, she’d have to fend mostly for herself. 

     Renee clutched the handle above the window as they curved around a wide circle. If only Aunt Lena would keep her mind on the traffic and not talk so much. In front of them, an off-white minibus veered into the left lane. Through its rear window she counted at least nine heads. On the back, below the window, someone had painted in black, curvy writing the words: Cool Under Pressure.

     Suddenly the van swerved and came to an abrupt stop at the side of the road, causing the driver they’d cut off to slam on his brakes. The indignant sound of his hooter drowned out Aunt Lena’s first words.

     “... believe it? These black taxis, I tell you, they’re a menace on the roads.” 

     Two black women squeezed themselves out of the van.

     Aunt Lena braked again. Cars and yellow police vehicles blocked the way ahead. A motley crowd of whites, blacks and those people of mixed race who were known as coloureds and who had arisen from the long-ago mixing of African, European and Malaysian blood—streamed across the road, running in all directions, shouting, calling, shrieking. 

     “Uh oh, there’s definitely something going on here.” Aunt Lena peered out the windshield. Turning to Renee, her brow crinkled with anxiety. “Let’s hope we won’t be caught up in this nonsense, that we’ll be able to get through safely.”

A later excerpt:

Two other students hurried past, headed in the direction Meryl had indicated. Renee tagged along and was soon busy with registration, the first challenge of the day. 

The forms were bilingual which made filling them in easier. Otherwise, apart from the French terms for the ballet steps, the trenchant sounds of English permeated every hall and classroom; crisp, cutting syllables bombarded her ears. How different from the homey lilt of Afrikaans. 

Strangers flitted past, unseeing, ungreeting, intent on where they were going and what they were doing, or else they were hailing old friends and fellow students. Had she somehow become invisible? At least someone might have said hallo and asked her where she was from. She knew she didn’t have a striking appearance, not like that girl Meryl. 

Time to head for the change rooms. Her heart launched into a tap dance at the thought of the coming ballet class. This would be her first opportunity to impress, her first chance to gauge how she’d measure up. Please, please let me do well. 

She stepped through the door. Other young women twisted into body-revealing leotards, pulled on brightly coloured, footless tights and contrasting socks. She bit her lip. Even her practice clothes – a mid-thigh-skimming white tunic with a cloth belt and pink tights – were odd, more modest. 

Holding herself tightly together, she set off down the corridor to the dance studio. Out of the stream of students coming from the other direction, one face and figure caught her eye – a young man with skin the colour of cinnamon. She noticed with dismay that he wore a singlet and tights. A rolled up towel circled his neck, so she knew he’d come from class. Never for one minute had she imagined anyone other than Whites being accepted at the school. Would there be any non-Whites in her class? She hoped not.”

© Brenda Hammond 2015