Category Archives: Memories

Sunshine in my pocket

Every New Year’s Eve local time at midnight, I tune in to my favourite radio station in Austria to hear the live ringing of the St. Stephen’s Cathedral bells in Vienna. Afterwards, they always play Strauss’s “The Blue Danube” waltz, and then usually a pop song of note. This year that song was Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling”. I’d never heard it before, but it was catchy enough to remember. When I looked it up, listened to it properly, watched the video, and read the lyrics, I could not stop dancing to it, and realised that it is the perfect song to start this year with.

Last year … should be best forgotten, at least most of it, especially the first half (ugh!). Personally all I can think of is: I survived. Fortunately more intact than I thought possible. And here I am, ready for 2017! All positive energy and smiles, or as Timberlake sings, with “that sunshine in my pocket”.

A whole sun of sunlight in my heart’s pocket, in fact.

New Year’s resolutions? Ah, you know, the usual: write a few books, win the lottery, travel the world.

In all honesty, I hardly have any plans. It’s the year I turn 40. I will publish two books. All monumental stuff, but it feels like my life should be: I am getting older. I write. I publish. I am embracing it all with great joy. What is different about this year is my involvement with PEN South Africa. I have been co-opted as a board member and will be promoting activities celebrating our inspiring literary heritage and contemporary writing.

For a while now, I have also been dreaming of founding an independent publishing house, a home to exquisite writing. This year might see its birth.

There will be literary salons, book festivals, trips – local and overseas – and lots of tennis to watch (Rafa is back!). I am looking forward to the publication of Koleka Putuma’s Collective Amnesia, Antjie Krog’s Lady Anne: A Chronicle in Verse, SSDA’s next anthology of short stories Migrations: New Short Fiction from Africa (edited by Efemia Chela, Bongani Kona and Helen Moffett), Katherine Stansfield’s Falling Creatures, Melissa Volker’s A Fractured Land, and Sarah Lotz’s next novel in which a Polish character features … I was told she gets to have some great mountaineering adventures … Or was it sex? Both, I hope. As long as she reaches the summit.

karinaI have no doubt this will be a brilliant year for books; many more exciting titles await.

I wish you all lots of health, and if not a sun, then at least a ray of sunlight in your pocket.

Let us dance.

Let’s not stop The Feeling.

Coven by S.A. Partridge

1-covenA spider scuttled across the dusty window.

Carmelita watched it curiously. The webs that clung to the panes were brown with age. It must have crawled out the floorboards. She looked down at the floor and caught a swift movement in the corner.

Old houses held so much life, she thought.

Through the window she could just make out the overgrown bushes and trees shaking in the seasonal Cape winds.

2-coven

She hated summer. She didn’t mind the wind too much. She loved the wildness of it. It was the unforgiving heat she hated, that made even sitting still uncomfortable. And there was always a burning in the air. Fires were an inevitability in Cape Town. It made her nervous, but that was a natural anxiety for a witch. There would always be someone wanting to see you burnt. Even for simply existing.

She looked up at the sound of laughter and caught an unfamiliar phrase in German. Marta was Skyping with one of her European friends again. The thought made Carmelita long for tall, cool forests and frozen oceans. Marta had visited almost every country in the world for her work and had friends in every one. Carmelita would never understand why her friend had abandoned the iced gingerbread houses of Vienna and settled in the sweltering, windy South African city instead. Carmelita was only ever happy when it rained, or when it was cold.

Marta’s laughter rang loud and clear from the other room. It was easy to be Marta’s friend. She was an old soul who had devoted her life to studying alchemical texts and world magic. An Academical. Carmelita was a Wildling. Their magical natures couldn’t be more different, but their friendship met somewhere in the middle.

Marta’s old Victorian home was an oasis from the heat. The wooden floorboards and high stone ceilings created a cool sanctuary. Carmelita loved it there. All old houses held on to their history like words stored in books. As a Wildling she felt it deeply. The house spoke to her through its creaks and cracks. It whispered to her in the way Marta’s books whispered to her. Raw magic was all around her.

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She jumped as one of the resident cats sprang through a window. The heavy scarlet drapes were thick with fur.

“Tea or something stronger?” Marta asked as she swept into the room in her long cotton dress. She placed a scented candle down on the coffee table, which flickered in the dust and filled the air with the scent of jasmine.

“It’s too hot for tea,” complained Carmelita, her eyes fixed on the flames. “And honestly, do you really need to ask? How long have we been friends and when have I ever asked for tea?”

“Gin it is,” said Marta happily, moving to an Oak cabinet.

Marta collected glasses and the cabinet contained an assortment of sizes and coloured glass, as well as trinkets she had collected on her travels. She opened the glass doors and took down two crystal glasses with twisted stems, like vines.

Wild glass for a wild thing, thought Carmelita.

3-coven

Marta placed a glass down next to the candle and settled on to a deep purple divan. No sooner had she lifted her feet than a small grey cat leaped up to bury itself in the folds of her skirt. She pulled her long brown plait over her shoulder and twisted it absently.

“Ingrid sends her love, as always,” she said.

Carmelita nodded. She had met the Norwegian witch twice before. Another mad European who loved the sun. The last time she had visited, her skin was splotchy and angry pink and her young daughter had run across the wooden floorboards stark naked.

“It must be wonderfully icy up there,” she said wistfully.

Marta smiled. “Oh yes.”

They drank in silence for a few moments.

“They’re all excited for the Raven’s Feast. The bonfires they make are a true wonder. I hope you get to see it one day.”

Carmelita sighed. “Well at least there’s the Sabbath to look forward to.”

The Witch’s Sabbath traditionally took place on Christmas Eve, or Mōdraniht, as the old Norwegians called it.

They both smiled. Feasts and holy festivals were one thing. Witch’s Sabbaths were quite another.

“Do we know what the moon is doing on that night?” Carmelita asked.

Marta shrugged a slender shoulder. “Does it matter? We’re going to celebrate regardless. And there’s the sacrifice. I’ve been looking forward to it all year.” Her eyes flashed deliciously.

Carmelita grinned. “Then it will be a Blood Moon, surely,” she said.

6-coven

They roared with laughter, causing the cat to dart off in irritation.

 

On the day of the Sabbath, Carmelita spent the morning in her flat’s tiny kitchen preparing lunch for her parents. Roasted pork belly with caramel sauce, crispy roast potatoes, sweet carrots and creamed spinach. While the gravy finished boiling, she laid out chocolates and homemade mince pies. Her parents stayed an hour then left. They weren’t a close family and even after thirty years had no idea their daughter was a witch.

Carmelita’s childhood had been a wild, imaginative time spent in her own head. She preferred the fairies and spirits she believed lived in the overgrown garden and spent long days outside making up stories and climbing trees. The outside was alive. A friend. When she was sad, dry leaves would swirl in the wind around her feet to make her laugh and bright orange Black-Eyed-Susan’s would make a comforting bed to lie in while she watched the sky.

She suspected her imaginings were true when the house began to send her secret messages. Her doll would suddenly move for no reason, and mould would appear in her room alone – in large clumps that mushroomed from the carpet.

Wildlings were creatures of nature. If one lived in a place for too long, the garden would begin reclaiming the house. Birds would move into the roof and weeds would claim the rest.

Carmelita could predict the future in a puddle of rain, and read the past in a moss-covered tree trunk.
After her parents left, she texted her boyfriend to see how his own family lunch was going. They had recently started dating, and while he found her moods challenging, he loved her weird nature. Most people thought of her as a non-conformist, but in reality she preferred the invisible world to the real one.

She lifted her feet up onto the couch, already starting to sprout mould at the edges and noticed the row of Starlings on her washing line. She wouldn’t mind them so much if only they left her herb garden alone.

Benjamin was looking forward to seeing her. It was going to be their first Christmas together and they were planning on spending the day picnicking at Kirstenbosch Gardens. She had an extra batch of mince pies ready, and the leftover pork was going to make delicious sandwiches.

She sealed off with a kiss and a promise to say goodnight before she went to bed. She had a big night ahead of her and didn’t want to be distracted by her phone. Long strips of cloud were extending across the afternoon sky. It meant the cold was coming back. A good omen, she thought.

 

The first thing Carmelita noticed when Marta opened the door was her wide-brimmed black hat. The next was her smile.

“Welcome”, she said happily.

The interior was lit by hundreds of flickering candles that cast long shadows. Laughter could he heard from the dining room where a small group of women chatted animatedly over wine. The long oak table was covered in an assortment of cheese, fruit and cakes. Carmelita added her tupperware container of mince pies to the spread and popped an olive into her mouth.

4-coven

“How are you, darling?” asked a familiar singsong voice.

She turned and was immediately enveloped into Edythe’s warm, motherly embrace. Edythe was also an Academical. They had met many years ago at a Coven meeting, and had clicked almost at once. Edythe was well-loved in the community and renowned for taking young witches under her wing.

“I’m great. Super excited for tonight. It’s so good to see you. It’s been ages.”

Edythe nodded and plucked a cherry from the table. She closed her eyes in delight. “Oh I do love a good Sabbath,” she said.

Carmelita spotted her friend Charlotte on a divan, clutching a glass of red wine. Charlotte’s lustrous jet-black mane and ruby-red lips made her instantly noticeable in a crowd. The young witch was an Academical in training and had only been part of the Coven for a few months. Carmelita liked her very much. They waved at each other excitedly.

The only other Wildling was Linda, an old soul like Marta. She could disappear for days on her canoe to be one with nature. She smiled faintly and drifted towards the window.

The witches stopped talking as Marta appeared in the doorway with a large basket of twigs. “Are we ready?” she asked. “I can’t wait a moment longer.”

 

The Coven assembled on divans and leather armchairs, each taking a handful of twigs which they would tie together with lengths of twine.

Carmelita swallowed a mouthful of wine. No one could truly appreciate wine as much as a Wildling. They could taste the earth and vines in every drop, the dew on the grapeskin, the wood of the barrel.

She shook off the pull of the grapes and concentrated on the task at hand. Every ring of twine bound the spell to the twigs. Her fingers worked the string, and she felt the flicker of life through her fingertips. The magic they were casting needed both the skill of the Academical and the raw power of the Wildlings. The Academicals understood the spell, the cause and effect. They created the words that held the magic together and knew the ancient incantations that would hold them fast. Wildlings drew power from the world around them and added the spark of life needed to quicken the spells.

It would take all their combined power to cast the spell.

Carmelita watched as Marta wound heavy twine around her hands methodically. Round and round and round. She was creating the head – the most important part of the sacrifice.

 

“We missed you at the last Sabbath.”

Carmelita looked up absently. Charlotte was smiling at her cheerfully.

Guilt pricked at her. She had always been secretly jealous of her Academical friends. They were cool and composed, kilometres above everyone else. Carmelita went mad more than she could sometimes stand. It was easier to lock herself away, like a werewolf at full moon. Quiet absence was better than wild-eyed raving.

She smiled and made up some excuse, feeling even guiltier for it. She hated lying. But she hated being seeing as unstable more. She had missed the last Sabbath and felt terrible about it. She concentrated on her bindings, and hoped Charlotte wouldn’t pursue the conversation. She didn’t.

The afternoon lifted and opened into quiet night.

The witches listened as Edythe told them about a Winter Solstice ceremony she had participated in during her Oxford days. Her student Coven drank plum wine till midnight, when they finally stole into the night to make their sacrifice. It was an anxious, exciting time when being a woman was just as bad as being a witch. Being both was practically scandalous. It took a long time for Edythe to realise she wasn’t wicked.

More wine was poured and the snack table was quickly swept away to make room for their bundles.

“Where shall we do it?” asked Charlotte. “I can’t drive like this. I think I’ve drunk and entire bottle of Pinotage on my own already.”

They exchanged nervous glances. No one was in any condition to drive.

Marta smiled and picked up an armful of bundles. “There’s no need. There’s a reason I’ve let the garden go to seed. The trees are so wild it’s become a leafy fortress. No one will be able to see what we’re up to.”

7-coven

They left the house in single file. The stoep creaked as they walked, and long branches scratched and pulled at their skirts. Carmelita could see the swell of stars above them. A frog chirruped from somewhere in the garden and she immediately relaxed. She wasn’t afraid of the dark shadows and rustling. She felt most at home with what scared others.

They built a fire. While the others watched the flames build, Marta and Edythe constructed the sacrifice. They were the most senior Academicals and had performed this ritual many times before. Charlotte watched their movements with bright-eyed concentration, memorizing every step.

Carmelita slipped into the shadows and hung a smaller twig effigy from a tree branch. It was three twigs bound together to create Algiz, the rune of protection -her own private gift to Marta. Her friend would discover it in her own time, when it would hopefully bring a smile to her face.

She returned to the fire to discover the likeness of man tied to a spike in the ground. Flames licked the bottommost twigs, singing the mossy ends. It would catch soon.

Edythe stepped forward and sprinkled a handful of earth into the flames.

“Tonight we celebrate the end of another year and with it the end of a terrible reign over our souls. With these words I banish the influence of a most odious spirit. May his evil never touch us. And may the new year be free of his malevolence.”

Marta stood in front of the burning figure solemnly.

Carmelita knew the intention of this ritual was mostly for her friend’s benefit. As much as the witches tried to live above the world and its mundane cruelty, there were some people whose cunning was beyond logic and reason. Sometimes being brilliant and beautiful attracted the jealousy of bad people who wished those gifts for themselves.

Marta was the most brilliant woman she knew, and preternaturally beautiful. It was an unearthly beauty like the ancient elves and fairies who had learned long ago to hide themselves from the world.

8-coven

Linda stepped forward and flicked a glistening branch towards the flames. Drops of blood clung to the bound twigs. “With this blood I consecrate this site in the name of Jörð, goddess of the earth.”

Charlotte tossed a handful of basil into the fire, her pretty young face illuminated by the flames. “I protect this site in the name of Frigg, who we honour this Mōdraniht.”

“Protect us from treachery,” intoned Carmelita, invoking the sign of Eihwaz with her fingers.

“And may the new year bring with it mercy,” said Marta, cupping her hands.

They watched the effigy burn and concentrated on their own wishes. Carmelita knew that Marta was secretly wishing for justice and Edythe strength. What Charlotte and Linda wanted she did not know. She herself wished for peace.

Inside they could hear Marta’s old grandfather clock strike twelve times for midnight.

When the sacrifice had burned down to ashes they returned to the house to consume the Mother’s Feast, knowing the new year would bring all that they had wished for.

9-coven

 

Stories with strawberry jam and clotted cream

In the night of 9 February 2016, on the twelfth anniversary of my first arrival in Cape Town, I dreamt that I was in a hospital. In my dream, André died there. A few days later I came to pick up his belongings, but no one was willing to assist me. They shoved me around the place, ignoring my distress. I felt desperate, lost. I wanted to take care of his possessions but nobody was keen to help me. And then out of the blue someone offered support. I woke up, relieved.

I signed the contract for my memoir about the relationship I had with André, The Fifth Mrs Brink, that morning. Afterwards, I returned home to find that our grandfather clock had stopped working without any apparent reason. I got it going again, but both the dream and the silent clock disturbed me.

In the late afternoon, on my way to a book launch, I had a terrible car accident in which I killed our beloved Brink Mobil, the ancient green Mercedes André and I used to drive. My friends told me later that I did not kill the Old Lady, that she died protecting me. I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that having the accident on the same day I signed the contract was a sign, signalling some kind of closure or an impending massacre. I hoped for the former, but had no way of knowing which it would be.

Three weeks later, I walked across the city to pick up a rental car provided by my insurance company. Passing the accident spot on an overhead bridge, I could still see the rust-red stains where the Brink Mobil had bled to death.

I walked past the funeral parlour where they took André after his death – he did not die in a hospital but on board of an aeroplane flying over Brazzaville.

I also passed a big red building in Woodstock which caught my eye because it looked quite new and impressive. I considered getting a coffee from a place on its ground floor.

Woodstock is where long ago I once appeared on a friend’s doorstep in one of her dreams. She told me the next day that I’d looked lost and just stood there, clutching a book to my chest. The same friend works in the big red building now.

I finished the first draft of The Fifth Mrs Brink in July. In September, I asked for the rights to my book back. I had to leave; I had no way of staying. If I wanted to truly take care of my and André’s stories, I had to find a home for them elsewhere. I submitted my memoir to another publishing house. They made me an offer. My new publisher gave me a book she thought might interest me: Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich, an account of how people survive, and make sense of, tyranny and massacres – by weaving tapestries of stories to keep us safe at night. The words of Second-Hand Time live in my bones.

In the evening of the 1st of November, someone asked me online which great writer I would like to have tea with. There is only one: The One. He liked his tea white with two sugars. And when he wanted to spoil me, he baked scones for us for breakfast.

scone

jonathan-ball-publishersI don’t know what I dreamt in the night of the 1st of November, but I know I slept through it. That in itself is a gift, a good omen. Uninterrupted sleep had become rare in the past few months, although I am mastering it again. In the morning of the 2nd, I had a scone at my favourite coffee shop. I drove to Woodstock in the little car that a friend lent me after my accident. I parked underneath the big red building, found my way upstairs to the 4th floor where kind people were waiting.

It is perhaps fitting that the publication of The Fifth Mrs Brink will be delayed by a few months next year to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the first time I became a refugee when my family escaped the tyranny of Communist Poland and sought asylum in Austria.

szczurek-arriving-in-safe-haven

Arriving on the doorstep of Jonathan Ball Publishers, I felt like a refugee who had sailed through treacherous waters in a derelict dinghy and found her way to the shores of a safe haven. With only my ancient fountain pen in the bag I carried, I was seeking asylum again.

Massacres and tyranny can be intimate, private, go nearly unnoticed.

I am not the only one who survives by telling stories.

My stories are safe now.

Blue light at Temenos

light

How often can you shatter and remain whole?

Death. Loss. Grief.

House break-in.

Cancer scare.

Institutions breaking you down by sheer incompetence and lack of understanding.

Death, again. And again.

Car accident.

And then…         . A void, a negation of time and space, of reality. How do you describe something or someone whom you tell, repeatedly: ‘I can’t breathe. I am in unbearable pain. I feel small. I am fragile. Vulnerable. Skinless. Please do not hurt me…’ And they violate your body and soul regardless? I do not know. Perhaps some things cannot be described. Sometimes words are too good to contain this, this…          ? blue-light-too

I care about words.

Another shattering.

Another loss.

What remains are the pieces. And a life-long illness. Deal with it, Karina.

turn-withinIn a corner, with no way out, when everything seems lost, broken, incomprehensible, a tiny light might save you. Holding on to that light is not an act of bravery. It is an act of compassion. I survive because I have kind people in my life. Perhaps recognising and reaching out for that kindness is courage? I do not know. I know that the sharing, the true care of friendship, have saved me from utter despair. The women in my life. I repeat: The women in my life. I do not know what I would have done without You. I salute and cherish you!

blue-lightThe first time I travelled to Temenos in McGregor, the retreat was recommended to me by my friend Margie. She knew what I was going through and said that the beauty and silence would be good for me. I fell in love with the place. One-and-a-half years later I went back, for the beauty and the silence. It is a silence punctuated by the outrageous screams of peacocks and the reluctant striking of the church tower clock. People smile, from the distance.

breakfast-at-temenos  sirloin  bemind

You can do things, or just be. Read. Sleep. Eat well. There is a bric-a-brac shop in the middle of McGregor which sells the best olives in the country. Tebaldi’s, the restaurant at Temenos, serves delicious meals. There are donkeys. Wine estates. Dusty heat. Tarot card readers and aroma therapists. Kindness, in the place and its people. The veld. And lazy sunsets which make you believe in tomorrow. It is all right to go to bed before 8pm. To read next to the pool for hours. To start brewing coffee at 5am and drink it on the stoep of your cottage while watching the light yawn and rise in the magical garden around you. Meditate, or just sit doing nothing at Temore, The Inner Temple of the Heart, with its soothing blue light.

reading-next-to-the-pool  falling

Wherever I go, I find coins. I call them my lucky coins. In South Africa, usually, 5c or 20c; 50c if I am really lucky. When I arrived in the gardens of Temenos, I found a R2-coin next to my car. Then, a few hours later, another R2-coin next to the pool. And the next day, while I was telling this story to my friend Helen (our stays at Temenos overlapped for one day and one night) during our sunset walk in the veld – in that very moment – I found another one next to our path. I want to believe that good things are coming. That despite the insanity of reality surrounding us in these troubled times, the kindness of people will prevail.

helen-in-the-veld-at-sunset

questions-from-the-seaDuring the last McGregor Poetry Festival a poem was inscribed on the walls of Temenos, my favourite one from Stephen Symon’s stunning debut collection Questions for the Sea. What synchronicity to find it there when I was returning home last night for the Q&A at Stephen’s reading/launch at Wordsworth Books in Gardens. On the way to the Gardens Centre, I stopped at The Book Lounge to pick up a book I’d ordered earlier, only to find out about the violence in the streets outside the bookshop just hours before. Louanne and Werner spoke about lost children and fear. They cancelled the event scheduled at the bookshop for that evening. The book I was buying was a gift for my friend Louisa who recently shared the remarkable Falling by Elizabeth Jane Howard with me. I started reading it at Temenos. Uncanny is not the word… There is a collective wisdom of women out there, to tap into it, to allow it to nourish and heal you, that is what I am reaching out to.

with-resident-catI arrived at Wordsworth Books rattled, but there were good friends, cheese and wine, and poetry – subtle, soul-restoring poetry. Beauty, like light, can save you. How precious that it can be contained in words. Thank you, Stephen and Nick, for caring about words.

My words are safe. I find strength in the beauty of peahens. I love my Friends. I can’t wait to share my McGregor olives with them.

peahens

And I am very curious what R6 of luck will gift me.

coffee-in-bed

Old writer, young wife: The life and times of the fifth and final Mrs Brink

karina-in-austria

Afrikaner novelist André Brink married Karina Szczurek when he was 71 and she was 29. They were together for 10 years before he died on a plane, beside her, high above Africa. She has just finished writing her memoir, in which she recounts her life with South Africa’s most celebrated and controversial novelist. Andy Martin went to Cape Town to talk to her about life after André…

Continue reading: INDEPENDENT

One day at The Star Soweto Literary Festival

Pam and BontleCamaraderie. That is the word which comes to mind when I think back to the one day I spent at the fabulous Soweto Theatre, attending the inaugural The Star Soweto Literary Festival. It was quite a whirlwind affair. A day of talks, improvisation, laughter and tears. I invited myself. The moment I heard that the festival was happening – and it was organised in a shockingly short amount of time – I volunteered to speak, chair sessions, whatever, just to be there. I felt it in my bones that it would be special, and I wanted to be part of it.

I was not disappointed.

Darryl Earl David, the founder of the three-day festival which took place last weekend, first announced his intentions at the end of June: “To create a truly non-racial literary festival in a black township, something that has never ever been done before. A start has been made in Khayelitsha. But that was more a book fair, not a literary festival. I have always maintained Soweto looms large in the literary imagination of South Africa … Soweto is the cradle of black literature. It was home to the canon of black literature in South Africa – Mongane Wally Serote, Sipho Sephamla Njabulo Ndebele, Miriam Tlali, Ellen Kuzwayo and Benedict Vilakazi.”

Pam and MohaleThe day I was there, Saturday, the presence of the spirits of these literary giants was palpable. The attempt to establish “a truly non-racial” space for writers, artists and the public to engage with one another’s ideas was a great success. I attended with a dear friend, Pamela Power, the author of Ms Conception and the upcoming psychological thriller, Things Unseen. We came away inspired, glowing, and moved to the core.

Continue reading: LitNet

with Pam and Kalim

“That’s what friends are for”

This time it was rage. No melancholy insomnia, just a big fat stick of fury ready to explode, the fuse much too short. I had been so livid that I walked around wanting to headbutt people, especially myself for being… well, not wise, to put it mildly. A volatile state. And once again Jack arrived, all in black, mattress-pressed, and ready for another clandestine rescue mission. He has a knack for showing up when most needed. Ryno sent him. A clandestine mission expert himself, Ryno is my publicist and friend, aka Work Husband, and he knew how much I coveted Reacher #21, Night School. When the proof copies arrived in his office, one was rushed off to me. And so I went back to night school with Jack and learned some valuable lessons about his rules. Recently, I had failed to follow one, and paid dearly for disobeying. Jack knows how to trust his gut feelings, follow his instincts, analyse, predict, outsmart, wait – patiently – and strike when least expected. Night School is vintage Reacher, all tension, wits and charm. Frances Neagley is back at his side. And oh, that crisp writing which seduces me every time. Yes, all men want to be like him, all women want to… Obviously! Because:

“…her hands flat and open, her palms close to the bed, hovering, skimming a cushion of air, as if she was balancing.”

with Jack

In September, Andy Martin, the “gonzo academic”, author of the must-read Reacher Said Nothing, is one of the international Open Book Festival participants in Cape Town. If you are a Reacher fan, or a surfer, come and listen to him talk about both.

In October, the second Jack Reacher film is released, based on Never Go Back.

Night School will be published on 8 November 2016.

Unbreakable: FLF 2016

Pam with Paige's quote

Pamela Power arriving at her first FLF

The feeling of impending doom had declared itself about a week in advance. André and I had been coming to the Franschhoek Literary Festival since its inception, sometimes as participating writers, always as readers. I can recall missing out on only one of the festivals because of travelling abroad. Since last year, I have been coming alone. Franschhoek in May is full of memories, literary and personal; before 2015, only positive. The FLF is a place where literature shines; where readers can mix and mingle with their idols or discover new books and writers to look forward to; where writers come out of their solitude to talk about their craft and passions, (re)connect, share stories, drink wine (occasionally wishing afterwards that it hadn’t been so freely available). Every year at the FLF, I have encountered fascinating readers and writers, met, or sometimes even only glanced, people who became very important to me, now dear friends.

 

Last year had been tough, but amazing in every respect. In one unexpected moment, I broke down, completely and utterly, but was held (thank you Alison Lowry), comforted (thank you Patricia Schonstein, who not knowing how to help otherwise, ran out into the night and brought me a volume of poetry where I found Karin Schimke’s poems, and reading them through the tears which insisted on spilling, I found inner calm again – enough to help another friend in distress later that night). I was alone, yet never alone.

This year, the loneliness beforehand was different, but just as overwhelming. And the closer the festival approached, the more desperate I became, reaching out for and grasping at anything which could save me from drowning. I felt so vulnerable, I nearly forgot how to breathe again. And once again, the beautiful people in my life – and the magic of their stories – provided a lifeboat, held me, comforted me.

Thursday morning found me soul-naked, on the edge of an abyss. Frightened, but brave, holding on. Loved. I knew what I had to do. At noon, I visited Parliament to pay my respects to a woman who crossed my path only briefly, but was a pathbreaker for numerous others all her life: Dene Smuts. Her family, friends and colleagues gathered in the old assembly building to celebrate this remarkable woman. I sat next to a friend who asked whether I had visited the place before. No, I said. She pointed out the spot just opposite us where Verwoerd was shot. And then pointed up at the gallery, and said she’d been present that day. This was also the room where the interim and current Constitutions were drafted, a process which Dene Smuts was closely involved in… Julia, her daughter (a fine writer who contributed to Touch), spoke beautifully about her mother. She moved me deeply with her tribute. Joanne Hichens was there, a friend of the family; now, my friend who – when she was still a stranger – came to me when I most needed her, bringing wisdom and care. I felt grand and intimate histories seeping in. Reeling, I drove home to meet another friend, freshly arrived from Joburg to spend the afternoon before the FLF with me: Pamela Power, the wonderful author of the equally wonderful Ms Conception. We had a late lunch at the Vineyard Hotel, basking in the sun in the Garden Lounge. She spoke about her idea for her next novel which sounds absolutely brilliant. In her hands, the theme and characters will thrive. I just know it!

Pamela at the Vineyard

In the evening, we drove out to Solms Delta where Richard Astor, Shaun Johnson, Mark Solms, Letebele Masemola and Vivian Bickford-Smith presented Jeremy Lewis’s recently published biography of Richard’s late father, David Astor: A Life in Print. To say that the event was inspiring would be the understatement of the year. Letebele Masemola reminded us that if it hadn’t been for The Observer’s coverage of the Rivonia Trial which brought it to the world’s attention, the accused would have been most likely condemned to death. David Astor was editor of the newspaper at the time. The stories and reports he ran saved those people’s lives. Just imagine if… Unimaginable! The power of the word, spreading, making it impossible for people to say, I didn’t know. History continuing to seep in…

David AstorRichard told me that our celebration of André’s life on Solms Delta the previous year the evening before the FLF sparked the idea for the celebration of his extraordinary father’s life this year. The link touched me.

Before the event, Pamela and I walked around Solms Delta at dusk and I showed her Philida’s bamboo copse. We drank divine Solms Delta wine and Astor pear cider, met up with book friends, made new ones, laughed, bonded. The celebrations continued at a Penguin dinner in Franschhoek later that evening. It was beautiful to see Pamela falling in love with Claire Robertson – sensitivities and wicked senses of humour connecting.

But I was on the verge of breaking again, despite everything. I drove home that night to seek refuge in my own bed, with my Furry Family, the place where I feel safest. Restored sufficiently to face the next day, I went back to Franschhoek to have breakfast with Austrian friends who were in town for the festival before attending my first session: Elinor Sisulu paying tribute to Sindiwe Magona, a woman of true greatness, our national literary treasure. Then, a brilliant panel on “breathing life into history” with Nigel Penn, Claire Robertson and Alex Eliseev, chaired to perfection by Mike Wills.

Then, sheer despair.

Everything seemed out of control. What could have been was slipping through my fingers, and there was nothing I could do. Helpless, small, I went into shock. It wasn’t the impossible that I longed for, but that which remained possible and was drifting away.

I was still in tears five minutes before the first session I was meant to chair, with three of my favourite authors: Niq Mhlongo, Mark Winkler and Nick Mulgrew. Friends witnessed my distress, but felt as helpless as I was. I was hugged, there were reassuring hands on my arms. I took a deep breath, dried my tears, and went into the Hospice Hall, knowing that no matter what, I would not fail these authors I admired and respected.

Fortunately, my voice doesn’t shake when my body goes into shock spasms. I doubt anyone in the audience guessed that I was on auto-pilot, trying to control my trembling legs. I have sometimes hated myself for being able to graduate at the top of my class while my family home was breaking apart, but that’s how it was. Perhaps it is time for me to accept that this is who I am, always have been?

Niq spoke about witches being ordinary beings in his culture. I said I was a witch, but a rather modern one. I have given up on brooms and travel by vacuum cleaner only.

And I’d felt all along that safety nets would be required to survive the weekend, that I would have to rely on the love of my friends and safe places to do what was required of me. Days in advance, I had already arranged to have dinner with close friends that evening. After the event, with people telling me how much they had enjoyed our panel, all glowing and smiling with literary pleasure, all I could think of was: Get on that vacuum cleaner, Karina, fly away… I fled, forgot to have my books signed.

Something stirred in me that evening, watching the breath-taking sunset on the old Elephant Path which Philida, all courage and pride, walked before me to lay her complaint centuries ago. Against all odds. And just look how far she has come! In the car, I listened to a Mozart CD I got for my last birthday. Surrounded by all this beauty, seeping in.

At dinner, I was told that it was all right to feel misery at times. I was told of that one time when my friend was also in a tough spot, confessed to his buddy, only to be told, “I am sorry for all your shit.” I was told other stories that made me – made all of us – weep with laughter. A little boy I love dearly slept in my arms after dinner. The food was delicious. I might have had too much wine. But in bed that night I felt blessed. I slept, a realisation dawning which should have been obvious, but never occurred to me as clearly as that night. Unbreakable. I am fucking unbreakable, I said to my mirror image the next morning.

And that is when all else fell into place.

During the first session I chaired on Saturday morning with David Cornwell, Chinelo Okparanta and Nthikeng Mohlele, we spoke about “writing relationships” and I was no longer afraid to quote from one of the books under discussion, Nthikeng’s Pleasure:

Pleasure_quote3

It has not escaped me that reading this novel in preparation for the FLF, finding this quote in the book the previous weekend, was at the heart of my distress that entire week. Because I know that not being even forty, I can die now. Transformed. I understand the chances of me being allowed to live this kind of love twice lie in the realm of magic. But I am patient, fearless. I can cast spells.

Meeting Nthikeng was a different kind of magic. He is the real deal, a writer of wisdom and beauty. What he wrote into my copy of his book assures me that there is a lot we can learn from one another. And I am eager. What an inspiration. What pleasure!

with Sindiwe

Photo: Fiona Snyckers

I arrived at the André Brink Memorial Lecture, given this year by our dear friend Sindiwe Magona, ready to celebrate love. Sindiwe made us reflect, laugh, cry – her words so deeply personal and universal at the same time. The way she spoke about André made me think about her: they both dare to speak truth to power. They do what writers do when at their best, and this insight was confirmed to me only minutes after the lecture for which Sindiwe received standing ovations: a woman walked up to the stage, asking Sindiwe to sign her copy of Chasing the Tails of My Father’s Cattle. “By reading this book, I have understood so much. Thank you. Your words are an inspiration,” she said.

 

So simple, so obvious, so magnificent.

I sat next to Sindiwe and thought: This is what it’s all about, those precious moments of truth, recognition, connection. This is why we are all here. This is what gives meaning to what we do. It was a powerful and timely reminder.

For a moment I was angry with myself, that I hadn’t realised any of this earlier, allowing pain and anxiety to nearly spoil it all for me.

Jacqui and ScarlettI attended other sessions. Wonderful to get to know Scarlett Thomas a bit. As always a pleasure to hear Jacqui L’Ange talk about one of the best novels of last year, The Seed Thief. Victor Dlamini and Leon de Kock spoke brilliantly about Flame in the Snow. Listening to Victor, I could only hope that he would be the next person to give the Memorial Lecture. Listening to Leon, I thought: I can’t wait to read his biography of André.

At the tiny gathering for the official announcement of the Ingrid Jonker Prize for poetry that afternoon, we heard beauty captured in words.

At the Sunday Times Literary Awards shortlists announcement just after, we were joined by evil. The juxtaposition beyond bizarre. I still feel discomfort about the entire event, something inside does not want to come to peace, although who am I to feel disturbed when there were others present who had suffered the unspeakable at the hands of this man. Who invited him? Why did he accept? Why did he cry? Do psychopaths cry? Who had the right to ask him to leave? How much faith in justice do we have? Did we have the right to tell his story, discuss it, him, and not allow him to listen? I thought of other men whom regimes turned into murderers, who were responsible for the deaths of thousands, but who were welcome among us. The word ‘complicity’ was flashing red in my mind.

Dazed, I rushed off to a dinner which could have been a complete disaster, but was saved by wonderful readers. When invited, I hadn’t been briefed properly what was expected of me at the event. I went thinking I would just be a guest. It turned out I was there to entertain other guests as a writer at their table. The horror of the situation struck me for a second. As an introvert, I need to prepare, brace myself for such occasions. But I was lucky. I think a lot of luck was on my side that entire weekend. I ended up at two tables full of fascinating people, who were passionate about books, life. I asked for their stories. They shared willingly.

FlameI slept peacefully that night, far away from my home and my Furry Ones, in a king size bed covered in books. On Sunday, I woke up to a picturesque view of the Franschhoek vineyards. The glorious autumn weather was screaming, Isn’t it just wonderful to be alive!? I had my own last session about literary letters in which Finuala Dowling (one of my favourite poets, writers; also perfect at chairing such panels – I sometimes attend events she moderates, just because of her) spoke to Margaret Daymond about Everyday Matters: Selected Letters of Dora Taylor, Bessie Head and Lilian Ngoyi and Karin Schimke and me about Flame in the Snow. Friends were there in the audience again, glowing from what they had witnessed. Full of praise and encouragement. I attended my last session of the festival with a huge smile on my face, which only widened listening to Jenny Crwys-Williams interview Kathryn White, Paige Nick and Scarlett Thomas about “sex on the page”.

On the way home, I visited a friend in the Devon Valley near Stellenbosch, was awed by the ridiculous views. We spoke about books and love and the nature of evil, had Nespresso and Mexican chocolate-covered nuts and coffee beans. She returned one of my Reachers to me, all satisfied with her latest adventure with Jack.

In the evening, the Furry Ones were eager to welcome me back home. I entered the house just in time to see Murray beat Djokovic in the Rome final. Miracles do happen. I went to the Waterfront to do some shopping: the bliss of driving through Cape Town on evenings like these… (Madonna dance tracks on full volume)! Before going to bed I looked up another dreaded piece of news, but both Poland and Austria seem to have scrapped through the Eurovision contest without embarrassing themselves too much this time (I watch every year if I can… yeah, I am South African by heart, but an Eurovision enthusiast still lives in there somewhere…).

On Thursday, Pamela told me about the energy one sends out into the world. That you must take care what you allow to go out as it will be returned to you. I thought of all the possibilities of experiencing beauty and meaning I, clouded by the pain, had nearly missed. Luckily – luck, that word again – only nearly. Luck is what we make of our opportunities.

I slept back home, covered in cats. In the morning I flew over to Noordhoek Beach where I always go to in times of pain and joy. I had the place to myself. Calm and beautiful. I sometimes think that my soul actually never leaves the beach. Perhaps that is why I have to visit often, to be fully restored to myself.

I walked, proud that I will continue gathering strength from walking along the sea, that there is no danger of me ever walking into the freezing waves. My footsteps all alone in the sand, I remembered that famous parable about Jesus… But I am not religious.

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During the most trying periods of my life, it seems I know how to carry myself.

The power of love, literature is the sea that sustains me. Because all stories are love stories.

And I can do fucking magic.

 

 

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.