Sunday, March 6, 2011

.....Robben Island

You are allowed to smile,” the guide, once a prisoner in this large cell, assures us. There is a scatter of nervous laughter but the weight of the walls dowses it quickly.

It’s not that our tourist group to Robben Island is a particularly taciturn bunch. On the boat over from Cape Town there was a lot of laughter and a general sense of holiday fun.

Though this 11km stretch is famous for its cold, its treacherous currents and its sharks, we were keeping an eye out for dolphins or perhaps even a whale. It was hard to imagine how freezing the water might be on a day this sunny, and no doubt many of the short voyages for the prisoners were as balmy and beautiful as this - but that would have been cold comfort for those wrenched from their homes; dislocated not only from family and society but the very continent, too. The sense of well-being and freedom which so often comes with a boat ride dims however, when we reach the wharf, a stolid, bare structure. Against the walls are huge photographs of tattered prisoners being herded onto this same wharf although then it was ringed by guards and dogs. We clatter onto

the island and pass under a squared arch which proclaims in block capital letters in both English and Afrika

ans “Robbene Iland. Welcome. We Serve With Pride.”

We begin by being packed onto a bus for a tour of the island itself. Our first guide is a young, pretty Black w

oman. To some extent all bus tours are slightly surreal as foreign worlds spool past the windows, but in this situation the

sensation is particula

rly marked. The bus is redolent with the smell of sunscreen and younger children clamour for snacks while the guide begins the story of the island.

Rows of empty, fenced, dog kennels slide by in our peripheral vision.

Condensed, the history seems to be one of unmitigated wretchedness. For much of the past four hundred years, Robben Island has served as a place of banishment for political and royal prisoners ranging from local chiefs hell-bent on defending their homelands, to those collected from as far afield as Malaysia, India, Ceylon and Indonesia. Petty criminals were often included in this mix. In 1844 it was decided that Robben Island would serve well as a leper colony and lunatic asylum. The conditions over the next sixty years were ones of appalling squalor, neglect and abuse. Later in the twentieth century, it was again resurrected as a prison. Yet over all these hundreds of years, the accompanying tiny communities were busy building houses, scouring out roads, erecting churches and schools, creating a splash of normality on this flat, featureless sliver of land.

The bus carries us down past the lepers’ pitiful graveyard, past the now largely quiet houses and the pretty churches. It is hard, on this summer’s day, to imagine work gangs of convicts being transported from prison through these domestic streets to their forced labour beyond. Perhaps they were taken via back roads. I can only hope so.

There is one stop where we all tumble down the steps of the bus into the harsh brightness. Because the island is largely limestone, the reflection from the sunlight is dazzling. In the quarry it is literally blinding. Naturally, convicts were not issued with sunglasses and many have suffered long-term damage. Nelson Mandela hashad several eye operations and photographers are cautioned not to use their flashes when taking pictures of him.

We take our own photographs of the lighthouse with Table Mountain, picture perfect, beyond. The rocky shoreline is strewn with seaweed and the usual detritus that fetches up with the tides. Drinks and crisps can be bought in the dim interior

of what used to be the guards’ bar. It is desolate, largely stripped of furniture and outside big barbecues lie rusting. It’s a struggle to imagine this room filled with the cigarette smoke and boisterous laughter of white men and their wives on a Friday night.

Back in the bus, we are carried past ruined tennis courts and a golf course which is home to a scattering of deer these days. The indoor shooting range is deserted. And then we are in the quarry. We are not allowed off the bus but sit silent in the hot stillness while our guide tells us how prisoners laboured here eight hours a day, every day. There is still a guard tower

but we have to paint in for ourselves the guards with their rifles and their dogs rimming the quarry. Here the dust not only burnt into the prisoners’ retinas but corroded their lungs, too. The only respite was a couple of caves carved into the far wall where the prisoners went to eat and to relieve themselves. It was also the only place where talking was permitted and it became a classroom. “Each one, teach one,” was the motto and the educated leaders taught the illiterate to read and write using cement bags.

“The University of Robben Island,” the guide tells us brightly and we laugh but uneasily. She gives us another example of Island humour:

“Who has their driver’s licence?” the guards would ask. Those who raised their hands were given the duty of pushing the backbreaking wheelbarrows.

The quarry is strangely small for the mythology that now surrounds it. Dry grass browns in the unrelenting

glare. Fresh water is desperately scarce on the island. A few rusted tools lie discarded in the white dust. Despite the shelter of the bus, the heat still beats through. We are told how temperatures plummet in the winter months, the wind whipping straight in

from the Antar

ctic. The pettiness of apartheid pursued prisoners even here. Under the colour coding so specific to the regime, African prisoners were given only sandals, short pants and canvas jackets. Indians and Coloureds were allowed socks, shoes, long pants, underpants and jerseys.

Then we are off again, jolting along the burning roads, our well-sprung bus softening the jolts of the numerous potholes, to the prison itself where our guide passes us on to an ex-prisoner. He takes us into the communal cell, large enough for fifty or sixty people, where he lived for four years. This is where he invites us to smile and we are grateful because we do not know the etiquette of visiting a prison.

The paint on the walls is peeling, the floor is cement, the glassless windows are stoutly barred and on each of the steel bunks is a flat pillow and a thin blanket. The nervous laughter is a release but still we cannot smile as he talks easily of the punishing daily routine which began at 5am and continued with rigid austerity all the long days. We hear of beatings and solitary confinement and reduced rations although how they could reduce such meagre fuel is hard

to imagine. Again apartheid separated the prisoners in that Africans, such as our guide, were given only a fraction of the rations of others and it was not until 1971 they were allowed any bread at all.

As to be expected, the prison was highly systematic, divided into different blocks and we clatter from one to another but a number of us quickly become disorientated. All the corridors look the same w

ith walls painted grey past a man’s head height. At the barred, unglazed windows we see that the walls are a foot thick. The dimensions of the corridors make the ceilings feel low and the floors are cement or stone. Everything is white or grey. The doors are huge iron affairs with locks straight out of the eighteenth century, looking like props off one of the prison movies we watch for entertainment. But their weight and their coldness are real. There are several tour groups and dislocated tourists tried to sort out which one they belong to as the voices eerily echo, and yet are muffled at the same time.

I lose my own group at the solitary cells. We all gather around Nelson Mandela’s cell of course and it becomes alive for a moment with the flashes from cameras but really it is as stripped and imperso

nal as the ones flanking it and facing it. In such a way, the system too tried to strip these men of their identities but this is the first time I smile voluntarily for in each cell there is a box with a glass front attached to the wall containing one item belonging to the inmate. Beside it is a written explanation from the prisoner himself, explaining the significance of the object. In one box lies a cement bag, so vital to the spread of literacy. In another there is a belt woven from the bits of net and rope scrounged from the rocky shoreline. The ends are encased in worn leather from a broken

shoe and the buckle is fashioned from a discarded bit of metal. It is a thing of beauty and I want to spend time going from cell to cell, reading each message, absorbing the significance of each object. But this is a tourist visit, pace has to be maintained and there is only time for quick glimpses into cells as we scurry past.

We are ushered down the oppressive corridors and out into the exercise yards which a

re enclosed by soaring walls topped with rolls of barbed wire and guard towers. The feeling of claustrophobia which began in the communal cell is by now stifling. The prisoners had been permitted to play tennis and they used this as a way to spread messages in balls which were hit over the wall to inmates on the other side. Messages were also spread in food and in a number of other ingenious ways. It is impossible to silence men who will speak out no matter what the consequences. We are shown the tree behind which Nelson Mandela used to bury the book he was writing. When it was discovered one day, he lost the privilege of study for four years.

I snatch a few minutes with the guide.

“How can you bear to come back here?”

“I am not ashamed. The guards, most of them, do not come.”

“And how do you feel about them?”

“We have forgiven them. You have heard of our Truth and Reconciliation?”

It is hard to believe in forgiveness, standing in that barren yard but my guide smiles

and his face, his whole talk, are free of bitterness.

“What is the reaction of visitors?”

“Many are interested. Some do not like it. They say it is lies that we are telling but -” and his hands gestures to the walls, the wire, the tower, “how can we lie? It is all here.”

“Why do they come if they refuse to believe it? What are they expecting?”

He shrugs and shakes his head. “That I don’t know.”

At this point it must be noted that not all the guards were bad. Some befriended the men they watched and the tour ends in a brief speech of reconciliation. Ex-prisoners have made their peace with the past and some even live on Robben Island now. Our guide also expresses his gratitude to Amnesty International for opposing and thus finally halting the hanging of political prisoners. But for their efforts, Mandela would have been executed long ago as so many before him.

The trip back to Cape Town is wild for the wind is up and the boat bounces over the waves, the spray drenching the passengers. They laugh and shout above the noise of motor and

waves. There is a sense of exuberance, which is perhaps fitting as we speed away from th

e isl

and and its suffocating past. Some think the prison should be raz

ed to the ground. There was even one idea of setting up a casino on Robben Island. But like the concentration camps of Germany, it should be preserved as it is. In the volatile history of Africa – indeed of the world - it serves to remind us not only of man’s inhumanity but of his extraordinary courage and humanity as well. .

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

.....The Pool

August in Provence. The landscape shimmers purple and blue. Purple fields of lavender stretching in one direction, purple rows of grapes in the other. Purple hills on the horizon. Blue sky, no clouds. No wind but the heat, the searing heat, makes the air shiver and tremble so the landscape seems alive. The song of cicadas vibrates.

The villa: white-washed, green-shuttered, shadowed, long, low. Once a cow-shed, now converted into an elegant holiday home, rented for two weeks. The swimming pool is set in a terrace below the villa. Paving stones, too hot to lie on. Blue water; cool, deep, on this sizzling day. Four people. The woman, bikinied and white from centuries of English, aristocratic breeding. She lies out on a chaise-longue, hands lax at her side, sun-glasses screening her eyes. Her body is limp but her mouth is tense. The girl sprawls: head in the shade, reading; body in the sun, slowly turning brown, maybe red-brown if she loses herself too much in her book. The boy, gorgeously tanned, puppy fat just hardening into adolescent muscle. He floats in the pool; bored, unwilling flotsam in an impressionist painting. The man. Tall, broad-chested, long legs. Hair iron-grey but thick and springy. "Distinguished", comes to mind, "well-preserved. In good shape for his age."

The man stands on the walled edge of the terrace above the pool. He surveys the landscape stretching before him. He has bought all this. His money, his hard work bought him all this - this elegant European life-style; his young, aristocratic wife; his mistress waiting in London for him. He smiles. Not bad for a poor American boy who grew up without a dime to his name. Like the cow-shed, his life has been renovated beyond recognition. His chest swells. He raises his arms high above his head as if to touch the sun, then lowers them again.

"Davey," he calls to the son of his third wife. "Davey, watch this."

Again he swings his arms wide but this time he lifts off the wall and elegantly swallow dives down ten feet to the pool below. He comes smiling to the surface, ripples radiating applause about him.

"Do you want to try that, Davey?"

Davey looks at his father with something akin to hate. Is there nothing this man, this three-week-a-year father cannot do?

"Nah," he says, "I don't want to."

"C'mon, Davey, I'll show you how." The man truly wants to be a good father. He's had one child from each of his first three wives. The two elder children grew up across the world from him. He regrets this now that they are adults. With Davey he has another chance. And maybe even yet another chance with Sophia, his fourth wife, lying there as one dead. He looks at her. Then again, maybe not.

"C'mon, Davey, there's nothing to be frightened of." He smiles coaxingly, but the boy knows the gauntlet is down.

"I'm not scared, I could if I want to."

"Well, c'mon then."

Ralph swings himself easily out of the pool and bounds up the steps two-at-a-time to the upper terrace. Resentment makes Davey clumsy and he lumbers in his father's wake.

They stand, side by side. The pool stretches below them - but not quite below them. From the bottom of the terrace to the pool there are several feet of paving stone. You must jump up and out or be dashed upon them. Davey's heart clutches painfully.

"I'm hungry," he says. "I'll do it later," and he disappears into the villa. Ralph watches his retreat with some exasperation and some scorn. That boy is being too molly-coddled by his mother. If he just lived with Ralph for a year, he'd turn him into a man.

He turns back to the pool. "Watch," he commands to the women below. The girl tears herself away from her book - he is her employer after all. Sophia turns her head a little so the sun-glasses face her husband, but no-one knows if her eyes are open or closed.

Again he executes a perfect swallow dive. "Truly," the girl admits grudgingly, "he is a multi-talented man."

"Well done," she says politely. But she's a New Zealander and doesn't like his American showmanship.

"Very good, Ralph," says Sophia drily. Ralph hates that, when she says something and he doesn't know if she's complimenting or insulting him.

"Why don't you girls try?" he asks jovially.

Jane smiles and returns to her book - it's at an exciting bit. Sophia turns her head slightly so once again her sun-glasses look away from Ralph.

"Not now, Ralph," she says, meaning, "Ralph, I won't play your games any more."

This sets the pattern for the next few days. A family holiday. Ralph arranged it because all the British go abroad in summer and Ralph desperately wants to be British. He's got everything he wants except that elusive, that damnable confidence of the British who are born knowing they are superior. Even his marriage into the upper class has not helped. Indeed, in some ways he's even more excluded than ever. Sophia came, not really because she thinks it will improve their marriage, but to keep up appearances until it falls irrevocably apart. Davey came because he had to. Jane came because she answered the advertisement which was too good to be true. A paid holiday to Provence, ostensibly to help with the cooking and with entertaining Davey. Now, she realises she's here to be the buffer zone, the neutral ground. Uncomfortable, certainly, but Provence is splendid.

No-one relaxes though. Ralph cannot help pushing, teasing {taunting}. Under his smooth American exterior he is angry that things aren't right. And he misses his mistress. She at least is loving and warm. Sophia is frigidly well-mannered. Davey is frankly sullen. Jane just keeps out of it all, reading her books and watching.

"C'mon, Davey!" The soft American accent doesn't get louder but it does get more insistent. It pierces the hot, still air, day after day. "You said you'd try." He doesn't mean to, but can't stop himself from goading. "You're not chicken, are you?"

Davey gnaws on his scarred knuckles and doesn't reply. There's nowhere he can hide in this open landscape, on these flat, bald terraces.

"Leave him alone!" Sophia finally snaps. "No-one wants to jump, Ralph."

"That's because you're all scared and it's easy, really it is."

"We are not scared," Sophia explains in her well-modulated tones that he once loved, "we just can't be bothered."

"Garbage! I want Davey to be a man, not a coward."

At that point the phone rings and Ralph bounds into the house. He speaks softly. Sophia's fingers twitch at her side. When he comes out, his expression is rueful, regretful. He says, "Tomorrow evening I'll have to go back. There's a crisis at the office."

Sophia's mouth grimaces just a fraction. She has been waiting for this, for him to get summoned back to London without her. Jane now knows why she was brought. She's to be Sophia's companion for the final week. Ralph may look rueful, but his eyes sparkle.

"Great," she thinks. "When Ralph goes, we'll all relax." She is fond of Sophia, who is quite charming and friendly when Ralph goes into the village for supplies.

Davey is torn between delight and bitterness. He's saved but only because once again his father's work is more important than he is.

That night Sophia's smooth surface begins cracking. They sit out on the terrace, drinking vodka from the deep freeze. Its icy bite is delicious. The purples and blues of the landscape have run into each other in the dusk so now the scene is smudged in shades of indigo. Jane has prepared fish and salad for dinner. Ralph eats heartily but Sophia barely touches a thing. She keeps refilling her glass, however.

Afterwards they play Trivial Pursuits. Ralph shines at most categories but Sophia is superb on entertainment and Jane doesn't do badly on Literature. Davey, as his father's partner, is required merely to sit back and be appreciative. He manages to fulfil the first requirement.

Then it's time for bed.

"Time for bed," says Ralph standing and stretching luxuriously. Tomorrow night he'll be back in Lisa's arms. Perhaps he should bring her back here at the end of summer when he's on one of his "business trips". At least Lisa would enjoy herself, unlike this sullen crew.

"I'll follow you later, Ralph," says Sophia. But she doesn't. Instead she sits drinking and smoking. Jane, knowing that this is why she has been brought here, sits up drinking and smoking too. When Sophia is sure Ralph is asleep, she cracks right open. Tears and recriminations come streaming out. Neither can be staunched so Jane doesn't try. She pats Sophia awkwardly on the shoulder and says, "Don't worry, it'll all be okay." Meaningless words because she and Sophia both know it never will be.

"What I can't stand," says Sophia, "is the way he keeps going on at Davey. I'd love to have a baby but how could I, to a man like that?" She throws back another glass of vodka.

"He thinks he's so bloody clever, diving off that wall. And he scorns us all for not doing it. Measuring us by his silly little games. You know what," she says, standing up and swaying, "I'm going to jump it."

Jane, whose head is also swaying, says, "Okay, if you will, I will too."

So at 2.00am, under the full, cold white moon the two women stumble into swim-suits out on the terrace. The pool shimmers with underwater lights, below them.

Sophia stands on the edge of the wall. She looks down then she tosses her head back defiantly and shouts "Geronimo!" as she leaps in. Jane thinks, "Geronimo?" and then, "Why not?" and she too launches off the wall.

"Geronimo!". The coldness of the water, the madness spark off the vodka in their blood. They laugh hysterically and clutch each others' arms. Together they lurch back up the steps and again jump off. "Geronimo!"

Then Sophia says, "We must get Davey," so he is dragged from his bed, bewildered but enchanted. He watches his step-mother and Jane jump off together shouting, "Geronimo!" The next time they jump, he's with them too, and he surfaces with a grin of pure delight they've never seen before.

"Geronimo, Geronimo!" he shouts as he jumps again and again and again. They jump in pairs, in threes, singlely. Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo... Eventually the cold night air and the late hour dowse the bravura of vodka and relief so they all go to bed and sleep late the next morning.

Ralph is having his final swim before leaving for London. He stands on the terrace and looks down at Sophia, lying inert, shielded by sun-glasses and at Jane reading yet another book. Where's Davey?

He turns and here comes his son to stand beside him. He smiles affectionately. He truly loves his spoilt, sullen son.

"C'mon, Davey, will you jump today?"

"Sure," says Davey and leaps off crying, "Geronimo!" Sophia's lips twitch. Jane smiles into her pages.

Ralph is thrilled. He's a chip off the old block, after all! He dives in beside Davey. "That was wonderful!"

He and Davey jump together, then he teaches Davey to dive - not a swallow dive of course - maybe next summer - but a dive nevertheless. Davey frollicks like the young adolescent he is.

"C'mon, what about you girls?" calls Ralph to the two women.

"Not now, Ralph," says Sophia. Jane pretends not to hear.

"They're chicken," Ralph winks quietly at Davey.

"Chicken, chicken, chicken!" shrieks Davey, hysterical with the relief, the joy of acceptance. Last night is quite. quite forgotten.

They stand side by side on the wall. Their shadows stripe Jane's book; their reflections fill the double moons of Sophia's sunglasses. The pool lies below them but the women are far beyond.