Mieke Van de Voort
“More than many things, what I wanted was to have a dance with strangers.”
He said this only a few weeks ago, during one of our conversations. I am still trying to process everything that happened. Today I have gained access to his diary. Now I connect pieces by going through his notes and my recollection of our conversations. I can only provide you with a raw sketch of what I have found up to now.
During our talk on tuesday (last week) I asked him what the earliest thing was he remembered. He told me: “Ever since I got out of the house on the first day and turned around to see the mountain which was so much closer than I expected, I was struck by it.”
I found a diary entry that reads like this:
Walking around town happily or cumbersome, caught up in reminiscence or in a traffic-puzzle, one needs only to lift the head and then there's mountain. Tablemountain rises far above the city and me. Pleasant, no arrogance this mountain has, it casts no fear-imbuing shadow nor does it aspire to be a stairway to where the Gods reside. This mountain is beyond the realm of gods and human beings yet is willing to be the stage upon which they engage in their magnificent deficiencies and from where they too reflect on the theater of their own creation.
On wednesday(last week) we spoke on the phone again, he said: “Maybe my wish was not really to dance with strangers and get to know them but to dance with an abstraction. Maybe I do not want to embrace individuals but people”.
It made me think. I wanted to envisage what he meant. What is ‘people'? What face does ‘people' have? I wanted to know. For some reason it seemed unlikely I would find that face here, in the enclave of the citybowl. If anywhere, it had to be behind the mountain. I looked at the mountain and tried to imagine what is beyond.
I saw who is behind the mountain. Her name is Beulah and we met in the Galaxy in Athlone. She gave me her cellnumber..
The next day, he called me and said: “There are flowers everywhere: Protea, Hibiscus, Wattle tree, Bougainvilla and many I don't know the names of”.
Difficulty of speech. Feeling at home but not at home. Speaking in a way like how I was used to speak when I was around in SA many years ago. I hear the same language around me and smell the same scent of the flowers on the trees in the streets, but I am not with the same people. I encounter what I am now calling misunderstanding but which is something else that needs to be defined in a more apt way. It makes me very selfconscious and, I am afraid, even paranoid.
I also found a much older note with the same handwriting, on an inserted piece of paper dating from 1993, Johannesburg:
So many people were present that she really cared for, people she admired, loved secretely. A stong sensation of time passing, flying by overcame her. This odd sensation she usually felt when she smelled the Wattle Tree; a gentle tree with tiny yellow soft bubbles that reeked of time. She could not describe it any other way; this scent is Time.
It struck me that he had used fiction in his diary, I mean that he had been writing in the third, female, person rather than the first. Why did he do that then, and, not now?
He didn't phone today. Spent more time reading the diary.
Today (wed) took a cab because I was running late. Something about the driver struck me. Not just because he looked different from most taxidrivers I had seen up to now (this one was white), but because of something else. A certain vulnerability. He seemed passified, like someone who had surrendered to his fate.
We chatted a bit, he talked about himself without glamour or any sense of posture. He had become a taxidriver ten years ago, when he lost his job due to reorganisation in the ‘New South Africa'. “I tried to find myself a job for one-and-a-half years, no-one would have me, so I became a taxidriver”.
I asked him the question, slightly embarassed, but encouraged by his lack of façade. “Will you have a dance with me?”
He told me he doesn't dance. “See, I am not a professional dancer either, but we could try?” I replied. ”...you know.......I have not danced in 30 years....”
Then he looked at me and said “OK”. “Where do you stay?” I asked. “Behind the mountain” he said. He told me to give him a call at the taxi number. It is the operator that I must call who will then put me through to him. It means I must speak to him through the taxi radio.
Sunday: death of a third person
Found a second note from 1993:
(...) figure from the dark came into her presence and said nothing because there was nothing to be said. They stared at one another and could see in each others' eyes how they were both delighted and sad at all the memories and expectations that flashed through their minds. They stood like this for a period devoid of duration, silent, without a sense of time (...) She would soon be leaving him, and every-one else, behind.
He called again.
-“Listen, I am tired of meeting people. I spent a whole evening dancing with strangers in WestEnd, in a Salsa-class. The one after the other. The joy I felt at first about meeting people by sharing a dance has left me. I don't want anyone to come near me, nor anything unknown. I want to be the owner of new memories without having to go through a new experience. And if one cannot genuinely call that a memory, then all I want is the representation of it; to hold in my hands the esthetics of a memory embodied in something like a photograph, a fetish”.
> “I am sorry to hear. Maybe you are forcing the present onto the past too radically”.
- “And then there's something else.. I read the first page of your text on the VRT website and I don't like the way you are turning me into a fiction, using the third person and all of that.”
> “It surprises me to hear you say that, exactly you.. well... I thought doing that would provide more space for me to actually come closer to reality”.
- “Did you hear yourself speak? Space...reality....You are starting to sound like an artist now. In any case, no offense, I opt out. You can keep the diary”.
Monday: new encounters
No calls anymore. Trying to make up for the loss of my third person I spent time in the morning walking around town making eyecontact. I received many smiles and greetings.
I took a cab. Tertius was the name of the driver. His radio was tuned to a reggaestation. He asked me what I was doing here. “I want to dance with someone I don't know” I said. He was curious to know why. We chatted. He said he had seen me in the city watching a group of young girls dance in traditional Zulu-outfits. “They are here every saturday, they come from Kayelitsha, they dance to make money” he told me.
I asked if he liked to dance. He made his hand into a shape like a growing flower and said: when I was young I used to go to places. I liked to dance. But now I am too busy working. “Do you cook when you come home from work? or your wife?” I asked him. “No, my wife she lives in East London, I have my own house there. When I am here I cook for myself and my two children”. “Do you play music when you cook?” “Yes, always” “...and dance?”. He laughed and said “yes, I dance in the kitchen.” He gave me his number.
Back at home my friend and roommate told me this: “Why do you have to search somewhere else? You are here with me, why not make new memories with me?”
In the afternoon Sung and I went downtown. We bought new clothes in a vintage store. He chose my dress. I liked his taste. We looked like a couple. We went for lunch in a place I had never been to before and asked the waitress to take a photograph of us.
Took the diary with me to Vida e Caffè down Kloofstreet. I ordered a carrot-nut muffin and a Caffè Latte with a glass of water. It cost me 25 Rand.
While eating my muffin I watched the waiters. They looked like a concept. They all wore jeans with a black shirt, a blue apron and a black barret. They speak Xhosa and Zulu to each other, and English to the customers. One of them had a print on the back of his shirt. His name is Claude. I asked him if I could take a picture of him in the shirt. At first he didn't want to accept money for the favour. I tried to convince him: “I am an artist, I am doing my job now. I might use it on a website. I think I should pay you for it”. “OK”. “How much?” I asked. “Ten Rand?” he said. I made it twenty because it made me feel better.
“Why do you wear the shirt?” I asked. “I like this one, it belongs to the cafe”. “and what do you think of the slogan viva a revoluçao ?” I went on. “I didn't think about it actually. I work here only for one month now” he responded. “And the icon? Who is the revolutionary depicted in the graphic?” I asked. He went back in and returned, a few minutes later, with the answer: “The guy who wrote the first official recipe of the muffin”.
Today I met up again with Beulah. I invited her for lunch and said I'd like to meet at a place I don't know yet and that I could come to around where she lives, which is Mitchells Plain. She called me back after ten minutes during which she consulted her mother, mrs B who advised her to think of a venue she would have liked to go to herself. So, we agreed to meet at Century City.
I decided to go to Century City, whatever it was.
On top of the Golden Acre I found a taxi in the hot sunlight waiting to fill up with commuters. Only when the sixteenth person was squeezed in we left. ‘Sexy girl' played on the radio. The boy in schooluniform sitting next to me was swinging to the tune and pulled faces at me.
On the highway I passed a building with a slogan on it, saying:'Wingfield motors for the people!'. It reminded me of a 1993 campaign but I could not recall which it was.
The stop where I got off was not quite Century city yet. I had to take a shuttle bus to get there. While waiting at the busstop, a young man with a beaming smile on his face walked up to me and shook my hand. “Hi”. The bus arrived. He stroked my chin and said “I‘m into whites”. “That's a weird thing to say” I replied. “I will sit next to you” he said. He smiled and sat next to me in the bus. “I didn't like you touching me like that” I said. “I thought I was excellent” he replied. He had a soft moustache and twinkling eyes, like a duckling. “It's not very respectful” I said, trying not to laugh, “and I am a lot older than you are”. “That's ok” he said and smiled at me with empathy. “What if I was actually a shy girl, smaller.. wouldn't you worry she'd feel harrassed by you?” I asked. “No, I think I was excellent!” his smile was even bigger than before. “Well, I think you must work on it”. “Eish!”
We talked about strategies of seduction for a bit, then he asked me what I do. “What kind of art? painting?”. “No, diverse media,” I responded, “like video, pho..” “video...as art?” he interrupted. “Yeah, like a video-artist” I said. “But how do you... eh... are you qualified for this?”. “No, not really” I had to admit. He looked at me, still smiling, “this is my stop, gorgeous, nice to meet you!” he said while getting up to leave the bus. “Next time I approach a girl I'm a video-artist”.
Beulah.. her appearance in the Galaxy was so enticing.. I couldn't wait to see what it would be like to meet again. I arrived late at Century City taxirank. She must have been annoyed but didn't show it. We strolled through the fancy corridors of the mega shopping complex. She told me where she's from, what she does. I realized nothing of her real life matched with what I had imagined it to be. 'I must be prepared to hear the stories I didn't intend to hear' I told myself. I must stop politicizing everything and projecting onto the new generation a past that has been.
We ate lunch at Primi's. She is so sophisticated. She chose the perfect menu and wanted to have freshly squeezed lemon on the side to sprinkle on the sautéed mushrooms. I felt clumsy, like a boer we'd say at home.
Century City looks like a concept. Built at the turn of the 21st century, it must be the zenith of the shopping mall experience. Both from the outside and the inside it looks like a palace. Some sort of marble, inlaid floors, glass roofs, high ceilings, pillars, everything spick 'n span. Fancy shops with jewelry and expensive cloths, hightech stores, gigantic supermarkets, lots of American franchise, huge widescreens showing soccer and beautiful people, a gamehall with machines I've never seen before. From the outside it looks like a fortress with a big canal right around and bridges with towers upon which bronze knights guard the entrances. Then there's this eastern touch to the architecture and some mediterranean flavour. A postmodern strategy to celebrate consumerism. I walked up to one of the knights, wondering who it could be that were the new heroes.
This one had no name. Its horse turned out to be no horse but a unicorn.. I went on to the next knight in armour. This was a phantatstical case as well. It had wings. The heroes of the future came from a virtual reality.
I arrived at Primi's, sat down and ordered a Black Label. The waiters' shirts said on the back: work is love made visible . While sipping from my beer and enjoying the sense of being on a holiday, my eyes got caught by a postcard in the serviette-holder. It was more like a business card actually. It said: a duty to turn chaos into orders>>>Primi .. The image above reminded me of communist propaganda. South Africa has a history of appropriating Soviet esthetics during the struggle, but I could not make sense of it in this context. I asked one of the waiters why they used this specific design. Thulani explained to me that these are military esthetics, referring to the way the enterprise is run. Thulani himself is an officer, and like him, every employee has a military rank. “Why communist?” I asked him. “No, we are not communists, don't be afraid”. “? But what about this postcard, it looks very Soviet to me?” “I dont' know” he said. “Maybe it was the idea of the owner's two sons. Would you like another beer ma'am?” I saluted him.
Beulah took me home. I met her family. It was not a bad place at all. I envied the liveliness in the house. I come from a quiet family, who did not have visitors often. “It drives me crazy” Beulah said. “I can't think properly with all the noise, it makes me want to escaspe”. She showed me her album with memorabilia. Pictures of a holiday she had spent in the USA after she worked there during last summer. “Do memories sometimes invade you unexpectedly, for example when you smell a certain flower?” I asked. “No, never. But I have many déja-vus” she answered. “Do you ever sit down with the album in order to consciously retrieve memories?” I tried again. “No, I only look at it when I am depressed”. I noticed it had become dark outside. “Then I dance, by myself, and cry, until I am exhausted and silent”.
I went out until late last night. I was flying. Five of us wanted to continue after our tourist experience in a Guguletu shebeen, Ed's braai and Ralph's birthday party. We moved on to District Six Café. I was so glad to be there, a totally different vibe altogether. The dj seemed to know exactly which music I liked and I danced and danced. And to show him my appreciation, I danced in front of the dj who was no more than a black silhouet to me against a brightly lit wall.
I recall meeting this guy that ate a Flake chocolate-bar. Strange how this episode had completely escaped my memory for so long. It was at a club at night. We were both watching all the pretty girls on the dancefloor. When i asked him for a light, he said: “people look so happy and beautiful when their parents are still together.” His remark puzzled me. I tried to strike up a conversation with him, like men do. “Do you see the girl with the black hair and the white top?” “Ja, she's sensational”. “Do you reckon her parents are still together?” I asked. He smiled. I liked his way. We spoke and drank for hours. By the time the place was closing and we said goodbye my desire for him had become rampant like a raging bushfire. I was too emotional and embarassed to show him.
Saturday: which cause?
He called again. I was delighted.
> “Hi! did you change your mind? Do you want to share more memories with me?”
- “No. I mean, yes I have changed my mind.”
- “I want my diary back. This is all too personal, I don't believe you are truly interested in me.”
> ”Do you suspect me of abusing you?”
- “Somehow I get this feeling you are more engaged with your project than with what is behind it. Earnestly”.
> ”I am sorry”
- “Me too”
I returned the diary. I did not get to know why it was so important to him to recall and then replace his memories. Was there a secret, or was his secret that there wasn't a secret? Looks like I'll never know.
Monday: last episode
[Lutino peach-faced lovebird is a mutation of the Agapornis Roseicollis, developed in the United States during the 1970s. A deep buttercup yellow body, a reddish facial coloration, and red eyes are his features. He has a white rump rather than the blue of the normal form.
Colour variants of the lovebird need similar care to that of normally coloured individuals; they are no harder to care for. All lovebirds need adequate protection in cold weather, otherwise they may suffer from frostbite, which could result in the loss of toes.]
I invited Jean to come with me to anywhere in an attempt to create new memories. We started just driving around, waiting to spontaneously create a story. We ended up in a petshop somewhere near Athlone I believe. We were both struck by colourful lovebirds in a cage. Jean wanted to set the birds free and I wanted to wear a dress of living lovebirds. He did not think my plan would work so we chose his and since I already wanted to go to ‘Weltevreden Valley' (beacuse of the nice sound of it in Dutch), we thought it would be good to combine the two. “But I can't really set them free in Weltevreden Valley ‘coz my girlfriend will be angry with me” Jean mentioned. “They'll probably die because they don't know how to take care of themselves”. “Well” I supposed, “that's all part of your story”.
‘Die slowly in captivity or quicker but in freedom' I thought, ‘when your name is lovebird the choice is not up to you. And what does freedom mean in any case when you cannot deal with it?'
I realized that my own morals had changed. 13 years ago I would have never preferred to set the bird free, now I secretely wanted the bird to be free. Did I desire to see that image only for my own satisfaction or did I really believe that the experience of being free would be fundamentally meaningful to the bird? Did the concept of freedom exist outside of human imagination? Or was I wishful for another reason?
“We don't usually rent out animals..” the shopowner said. But it took only a bit of charm to convince him. He refused to accept money for the favour. He respected our ‘artproject'. He took a deposit from us and said the basis of our interaction should be trust.
One of his employees, a hansome man in a blue worker's uniform, put his hand in the birdcage after we had indicated that we wanted the yellow one, with a bit of orange around its head, that was winking at us. The birds flew around like crazy in the cage, his hand slowly but steadily followed our lovebird-to-be and when he finally cornered it, he clasped his fingers around the feathered beauty. His grip was firm yet gentle, just like a man's should be. He swiftly let go off our lovebird in a separate cage. Jean and I looked at its little chest moving up and down, its heart panting, and then looked at each other confirming the fact that we were witnessing another being's traumatic experience caused by our artistic endeavour. Should such be the burden of our lovebird?
After a short impromptu in the photo studio around the corner where I had my portrait taken for a postcard to be sent to an ex-love, we set out for ‘Weltevreden Valley'. It took us a while to find Happy Valley in the threedimensional world. We had to translate the coordinates of the map to an environment of wasteland and informal settlements. We stopped briefly at Oliver Tambo Drive and then moved on to Vanguard Drive. Jean pulled the car over to the side of the road at the R300-junction. We found a nice spot for the lovebird amidst grass and bushes, a few hundred meters away from a squattercamp. At the horizon Capetown's mountains completed the image. Very soon we received attention from passersby. Some young boys with fancy cellphones walked up to us and enquired what the bird was about. I was busy taping the happening onto my digital compact camera in the videomode.
Jean was playing cards on top of the cage in the field. The cards had banknotes from different countries printed on them. He chose only the ones with hearts and explained to the camera that love is a gamble. I asked the boy next to me if love meant anything to him. He said: “No”. “Really, is there no-one you love?” I asked. “Hmm, yesss.. like my father and them... and you” he replied. “Me? How can you love me?” I wondered. “Yes, I love you too” the kid said. “But you don't know me. Can you love me just like that?” I urged. “Yes” he said.
“No! I mean not really ...I am a stranger to you...”. He insisted he loved me. I moved the camera to the other boys that were playing a Mariah Carrey-tune from their phone, holding it next to lovebird's head who seemed to enjoy it since he stayed close to the cellphone and sat calmly. Another guy took a snapshot with his cellphone.
I asked them if we were in Weltevreden Valley but they didn't seem to understand my question. Was this area part of what is now called ‘Samora Machel'? Some bigger guys came walking up and joined in the conversation. The big guys told us the name of the lovebird in Xhosa, which I forgot. I got caught up in taping an airplane flying against the background of clouds and mountains.
I could hear John Denver singing ‘I am leaving on a jetplane... don't know when I'll be back again' which transferred me back to the early nineties and a faraway memory.
Jean urged me to make a few stills before we'd go. I took them and stood back with the camera in my hand. Jean looked up at me and said, ironically, “do you want to have a dance with one of these guys?”. I thought of the billboards in the back of the car that I had made this morning, reading the words ‘dance with me'.
While trying to picture myself dancing with them, my attention slipped away.
One of the big guys put his hand on the camera and first thinking he wanted to see the images, my grip was loose. A splitsecond later I decided to hold on to it but it was too late. Quite elegantly the Sony glided into his hands and he stepped back. “Hey, give it back!” I said. The small guys had fled, only the two big ones were still there. “Come on! At least give me back the flashcard'” I tried. The other guy pointed a gun at me and stared me in the face with crazy eyes. I was about to protest more but thought I'd better not. It looked like a real gun tho' it was also tiny. The moment lasted shorter than a second but more than 24 frames. Then they ran off. They seemed more nervous than we were. Lovebird was fine.
Jean reminded me that I had asked him if it was safe before we left the car and that he had said “No, but we are prepared to take the risk”. We mourned the vanishing of the magical footage. I guess it would have been too perfect to be true. I took a sip of my Stoney.
Jean did not stray from lovebird's side since then. The three of us visited several police stations, now called ‘community service centers', wanting to go into the squattercamp with them to put a reward on the flashcard in an attempt to retrieve the lost image. I detected what I think was a glimpse of laughter on the officer's face. He had never heard of Weltevreden Valley. “That is not within our jurisdiction” he said, “go to Philippi East station”. At every center we were told the same story and sent on to the next. It seemed Weltevreden Valley did not exist after all.
Tuesday: paan paan paan, wat gaan aan?
I wanted to call him and shout: ‘Remember that time in 1992 when you spotted the South African flag on PW's house in Wildernis?!... Did you hear?...
daai ou krokodil is dood...