It’s raining. After weeks of perverse heat, I’m sitting with my doors open to allow the cool air to come in and I can’t stop marvelling at the fact that it is truly raining. I can almost hear my garden gasping its relief – yes I water it, but in comparison to this gently permeating rain my attempts are as if nothing. I am listening to Damien Rice, perhaps from a perverse desire to be melancholy on Christmas day, perhaps because my brother came by earlier humming one of his songs. So it’s Damien Rice, the rain, some red wine, and I, on Christmas evening.
My last rainy Christmas was in 2003. I can still remember it achingly clearly – I was 14 and both terrified of life and hungry for it. We had driven down to the Western Cape from our farm in Natal, ostensibly to visit the family, also for my dad to close a deal on selling two plots we owned near Gansbaai, a coastal town. Before Natal, we had actually lived in Gansbaai, and I had somehow attached to it all the unpleasant memories of my pre-teens, scapegoated it unashamedly. Most of all, I hated it during the holiday season – all of a sudden the gloriously empty houses everywhere filling up with people laughing uproariously, playing music to the small hours, putting up gaudy decorations, filling the beach, cramming the grocery shops, the streets with their too-clean Landrovers and Toyota 4X4s. Everywhere strange children eating ice cream and, so it felt, staring at us as though we were the aliens. For two months a year it wasn’t my town at all anymore.
So coming back as holidayers was odd in itself. Bittersweet. I didn’t like it much (admittedly, I didn’t like too many things back then). We went to look at our plots; they were outside town in a new, supposedly upmarket development – around them houses were jumping up, each more grandiose and ridiculous than the other. Our piece of land didn’t quite look out to the sea, but it was close enough; it was also completely overgrown by fynbos, making it almost impossible to walk through. We did, though, even though the skies were settling in a fine mist onto the foliage, leaving one’s pants wet, leaving one’s cheer rather dampened at the wind permeating every layer of clothes, at the skies closing forbiddingly above us. My dad was seized with a landowner’s fanaticism, wanting to inspect every corner, to mark off his domain, to show us where every boundary pole was still standing. Once we did, he didn’t want to leave. “Let’s sleep here tonight!” he suggested to my mom. “It’ll save money!”
There we were: five straggly kids (the youngest of whom was three), my mom silent and exhausted in the way one tends to be after breaking up endless sibling car-fights, and my dad, chomping at the bit for a fire on his own piece of land next to the ocean (and eager to avoid my mom’s family, whom we were supposed to visit). We complained, we dragged our feet, yet we ended up sleeping in a hopelessly small tent, bundled in all our warmest clothes. I slept at the far side, next to my sister, face pressed against the fabric of the tent, standoffish as always. (It seems now, looking back, that my teenage years were an endless gritting of teeth and silent bearing of the moment in the knowledge that one day, one day, I would grow up and do exactly what I wanted.)
On Christmas morning I woke up in a puddle of water. Somehow in the night a tent flap had come open and I was soaked through. My breath had congealed on the fabric against my face. I was lying, it felt to me, in a mixture of rain, sweat, and the breath of seven people. And probably a few farts too. I struggled out of my sleeping bag and went to pee outside behind a bush. The sun, though hidden from sight, was rising, and the sky was slowly awakening in a chorus of muted colours. It was very, very beautiful. It smelled of sea. It sounded of ocean birds. I hated it with every fibre of my being.
Perhaps it was because I knew the coming year would be a difficult one, perhaps because my parents were fighting, perhaps simply because I was fourteen and confused, but I have not a single good memory of that holiday. Nowadays, driving through Gansbaai feels odd. I still see all the things I hated. I even feel a bit of residual emotion creeping up on me. Yet I no longer hate it – to a certain extent I even enjoy running through the shops, bumping into people, standing in line with my wine and lamb chops like every other vacationer. I look at its mountains and its ocean and its unpredictable weather and find, strangely, that I somewhat like it. And when I think of it, or when I meet someone else who lived there and indulge in some mutual reminiscing, I feel nostalgia. That and the uncomfortable feeling that I am betraying my 14-year old self.
The following year did turn out to be the hardest I have ever experienced. I went through an operation to stretch my leg, which for a year left me crutch-bound, in intense pain, and wearing a very ugly metal contraption. My mom experienced very serious health problems. My parents’ marriage finally fell apart. We went through odd and complicated things and finally, by the end of 2004, all of us save my dad moved away, in a single car filled to the brim with everything we could take. Yet the hardest part of the year was not one of these things, but rather the simple agony of being fourteen, of being isolated, of wanting to be like everybody else yet being so glaringly not. Trying to forge an identity and glean some meaning from life, while around me my entire family was like an animal writhing in pain. My single thought, my one single thought, was: only four more years. Four more and then I’m eighteen. Then I can move out.
And then I was eighteen. And then twenty-one. And then twenty-five. And gradually life became gentler. Anger more nuanced. Injustice less life-defining, pain less life-threatening. Definites less definite. I moved out as soon as I could, yet since then my memories have softened into something tender. The self-inflicted isolation, the anger and confusion, have faded, and fierce love has remained.
This morning I woke up and my first thought was that I wished I could be with my family (the adapted version). I phoned my mom, sent a voice note to my sister. I smiled at the thought of seeing them in a week’s time. A friend and I went to an orphanage for two hours, where I sat on the floor, wearing one of the boys’ ridiculous Christmas hats, racing cars on a shoddy track (mine kept falling off the track. I lost). I kept wanting to ask potentially awful things like: “do you have brothers and sisters?” and I felt both intensely sad and immensely grateful.
And then I came home and it was evening and I did exactly what I, as a 14-year old, always pictured myself oneday doing. I poured myself a glass of wine, and ate an entire box of strawberries. I opened my doors as wide as they could go. I put some music on, sat back and closed my eyes and let peace seep through me.