Monthly Archives: February 2016

Book review: Letters of Stone – From Nazi Germany to South Africa by Steven Robins

Letters of StoneReading about the Holocaust is never easy. Facing its terrible truths, especially when your own family is involved, is heroic.

Anthropologist Steven Robins had no inkling of what he would unearth when he embarked on a quest to discover more about the three women in an old photograph that had sat in his childhood home for years. He was born in 1959 in Port Elizabeth. He and his brother Michael grew up oblivious to their Polish and German ancestry and to the fates of their father’s relatives during the Third Reich.

The journey Robins takes in Letters of Stone connects “different times and places”. It is a journey that took nearly three decades to complete – between the time Robins interviewed his father in Port Elizabeth in 1989 and the publication of this astounding book. To begin with, Robins had very little to go on. But a series of uncanny coincidences led him further into the labyrinth of the private history of his family, and beyond.

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The Grandfather Clock

The Grandfather Clock

The clockmaker came out only at night. He arrived at the young widow’s house shortly after half-past eight. Books and remnants of a simple dinner lay across the table in the sitting room where the grandfather clock had been standing silent for a year. The woman pointed at the ancient instrument in the corner and folded her hands in front of her as if in prayer.

‘Sorry for your loss,’ he said.

‘Thank you.’

In the silence that followed, she could feel her heart galloping in her chest.

‘How long has it been now?’

‘A year, today.’

‘Ah. I’m sorry.’

They stood facing each other as time passed in slow motion.

‘So, what would you like me to do?’

She had summoned him earlier in the day, the explanation for the call vague. Something about an anniversary.

‘My husband had always taken care of it. It stopped when he died,’ she said.

‘So there’s nothing wrong with it? You just want me to get it going again?’

‘Yes.’ A prayer. ‘And please teach me how to keep it working.’

He nodded and opened his tool box, trying to concentrate on the task ahead instead of the woman beside him, tense like a coiled spring.

As the clockmaker set to work, she stepped back, watching from a distance. He asked about the key. She did not know what he meant, but eventually remembered the small black handle her husband had used to wind the clock. She was surprised how easy it was to keep the mechanism running.

‘It should be fine for a while,’ the man explained, turning the clock’s hands to the correct time, ‘but I’ll have to take it in for proper servicing soon.’

The clock chimed for the first time in a year. It took all her strength to keep her composure. Time stood still.

 

Before he left, she asked, ‘Tell me, do you think it’s true what they say, about your whole life flashing before you when you are about to die?’

‘I am not sure, dear,’ he said, reverting to the familiar address, not knowing how else to comfort the young woman.

He refused to take money from her. ‘Next time, when I service it properly,’ he said.

She thanked the clockmaker and gently closed the door after bidding him a good night. Alone, she leaned her head against the passage wall and cried.

The clock chimed nine. She counted the heartbeats and wiped the tears from her face with the back of her hand. She walked over to the grandfather clock. It towered above her in the silence of the night. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. The stories of a long-lost friend returning home. She listened to the soothing whispers of its hands telling her about the future. They reminded her of violin music announcing a new dawn.

 

 

The Break-up

Break-Up LitNet illustration

It was an awkward situation. I was standing there, in front of my best friend’s door, with a cardboard box and an old suitcase in my arms, feeling foolish. I could hear her drying her hair inside. Taking a deep breath, I pressed the bell.

“Coming!” Marlene shouted, switching off the hairdryer.

When she opened the door, the dark hallway of the flat building was flooded with sunshine. It was the beginning of a hot summer day, the humidity in the air promising rain later in the afternoon. Marlene’s damp red curls looked on fire in the bright morning light.

She hovered in the doorframe, staring at the box and the suitcase, twisting one of her curls between a forefinger and a thumb.

“Hi,” I volunteered.

“Hi, come in.” She disentangled her fingers from her hair and swept her hand aside in a gesture of welcome. The flimsy bathrobe she was wearing came undone as she did so, and I glimpsed a perfect, small breast before she tied the garment tighter around her waist.

“This is weird,” she said, following me into the flat.

I pressed my lips together and agreed. “You can say that again.”

We were facing each other, not really knowing how to proceed. Nothing had prepared us for this odd situation.

“I don’t know.” She paused. “I don’t know whether all the clothes will fit into this suitcase.” She rushed through the second part of the statement. “The box might also be too small for all the other stuff,” she added with a shy smile.

“That’s alright, maybe you’ll have a bag or something for me?” I looked her straight in the eye, without returning the smile. I didn’t know what was really expected of me. Was I supposed to be distant? Angry? Sympathetic? I had no clue. Deep inside, I simply wanted to be neutral, but that didn’t feel right either. But how was I to pick sides?

“Right!” She gracefully turned on her bare heel. “Let me show you the stuff first.”

She led me to her bedroom. As always, the place was in a state of chaos. I never saw her make her bed, or pick up all the magazines and books from the floor. She was the fastest and least discriminating reader I knew; the likes of Dan Brown and Virginia Woolf were strewn all around us. We shared the passion of reading, but I was more careful with my choices, and I liked to be organised. Pedantic, is how Marlene described it. I preferred to think of myself as fastidious.

“That’s all I could find.” She pointed at a pile of clothes on the bed next to one of the crumpled pillows. “Some pieces were still in the laundry basket, so he might want to check.”

She reached for the box I was carrying. “Let me try to get the other stuff in here for you.”

While I was packing the suitcase, she put some DVDs, CDs, computer games and comic books from another pile on the floor into the box.

“I’ll get a plastic bag for the sneakers and the roller blades,” she said and left the room.

With difficulty I zipped up the bulging suitcase and looked at the box. I recognised the top CD cover: Lady Gaga. Kester once played the record for us. I tried to keep up with the latest in music, but some developments were beyond me.

Marlene returned, packed the remaining items, and handed me the bag.

“This won’t change anything between us, will it?” She was facing the window and the lucid sunlight illuminated her features again. I knew her well enough to recognise what was coming. I wasn’t good with tears, especially not hers.

“Of course not,” I reassured her, put the bag aside, and pulled her into a loose embrace. Her hair smelled like summer rain on hot concrete.

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