Scary stories from a lovely place
This afternoon Stephen and I headed out for a walk to the mall in Brixton. We had to buy toilet paper, electricity and Stephen had to send an email. This is usually such a normal event, mundane even, but today’s would probably be our last. Walking in and appreciating Brixton has been something that we’ve both enjoyed alone, together and now with Silas.
Today, it’s no different. We head down Fulham Rd, past the Chinese blinds store with the surreptitious industrial kitchen whipping up the sweet smells of teriyaki chicken. Past the funeral home, past the Overcomer’s Parish of the Redeemed Christian Church of God. The streets are still pretty dirty from the month long garbage collection strike that ended a couple of weeks ago.
We arrive at the Protea Centre. We have to go around the back because the escalator and lift have been ripped out, replaced only by illegal (Stephen tells me) scaffolding stairs which are hair-raisingly steep. Past the weed salesman who is always on this corner of High street, we notice he is engaged in business with a white guy in a car. I almost want to say hello, he is so familiar to me. We head around into the back of the mall, and past the guy who shaves heads on a plastic stool by the car park.
Our visits to Pick n Pay and the Telle Bureau are normal. Back out on High Street, Stephen realises he left his scanned bank and tax details on the computer, so rushes back to delete them. Silas and I wait in the glaring afternoon sun, trying not to look too out of place with our fancy jogging pram.
We decide to go home via Peter’s corner store, which is out of our way by a block, but that’s fine. We pass the striking mural on the wall of the old shebeen. It’s mostly in harsh, black colour, but there are outlines in grey of stalls, women, children and men lining the sides of a railway line. It’s striking and deep, even though it’s now pretty dirty and marred in some places by vandalism. But it’s actually surprisingly well-kept and I wonder if that’s because it’s just so good, everyone respects it. We stop in Peter’s and buy ice-blocks. We’re both pretty wiped out and we spent a good part of the day in Pretoria. That place must be 10 degrees hotter than Joburg.
Inside Peter’s the two black girls operating the tills are sharing a private joke, I think at the expense of their old, Portuguese boss, Peter. But he seems to be enjoying it too and responds purposely slowly to their demands for more change. Outside Peter’s stands a Muslim man begging with his toddler son. We saw them a few days ago and the little boy was chewing on a piece of cardboard. Skinny, unkempt and a bit wild looking, to me they look very desperate and poor. I wonder where the little boy’s mother is, perhaps she has passed away. I admire the father for remaining with his son and attempting to provide for him. In a country where so many people’s fathers have abandoned their responsibilities, this one impresses me.
Yesterday I bought them a loaf of bread and a packet of Smarties. The Smarties had actually been for me and I was looking forward to eating them over a cup of earl grey later that afternoon when Silas slept. But as I handed over the bread and saw the boy playing with a stick in between the bricks of the path I couldn’t deny him the treat of chocolate. Today as I gave them my change the boy was playing with a dirty puddle of water in the gutter. If Silas hadn’t been restrained he would have joined in. The father avoids my eye but quietly thanks me, exhorting God to bless me. He has a tattoo on the palm of his hand. I want to ask what it is, but don’t linger. It’s heartbreaking stuff.
We extend our walk a little further by going past Kingston Frost Park. There is just one kid playing on a creaky swing. Usually it’s teeming with all sorts of different kids and adults, but not today. We see a friend, Tebogo, coming towards us, so we wait to say goodbye. Tebogo works as the cleaner at our old church. I marvel at his slow walking pace, it’s about half 4 but he’s looking at about a two hour walk and train ride home to Soweto. But he’s enjoying conversation with a friend. He stops and talks to us, expressing his sadness at our leaving. He and I try and express kind words, but awkwardness and the language barrier make it a bit difficult. In the end we understand each other.
Finally we walk down my favourite street, past some lovely old homes and gardens. The Sentech Tower is staring threateningly down at us, a partial moon already risen next to it. It’s a beautiful symbol of Joburg. When I lived in Sydney the coast was my point of navigation. When I arrived in Joburg I was lost, where is east when there’s no ocean? But then the Sentech tower became my point of reference. To get home I knew I had to head towards that spire. And then when I moved into Stephen’s home just beneath it, it was also my point of reference for getting back to him – my wonderful husband who saw the beauty in Brixton and let me live with him and walk the streets, soaking it all up.