On the eve of the Cape Town Book Fair, I sat in my GP’s office, wailing that I was absolutely sick of being sick. Because there is a malfunctioning inner-ear prosthesis somewhere in the stuffed sack that is my head at present, I was dispatched post-haste to my ear specialist, who has passed me, like an expensive parcel, on to my surgeon. The one who does miniscule and sometimes miraculous things inside my head, not the one who is supposed to be carving up my female bits in a few weeks – if we can sort out my ear and shift the infection bubbling round my sinuses in time, that is.
Way too much information, I know. I simply wanted to explain that for the duration of the Book Fair, I was not so much running on empty as operating in a parallel universe. Those who laugh at my drug-virgin status don’t realise that when all other systems are blinking amber, my brain sets off a firework display of chemicals that keeps me going — rather like a generator in an Eskom black-out. When I am in this state, Dali recalibrates my reality; time stretches like chewing gum and whirs forward maniacally, often simultaneously. I feel no pain. Certain faces, conversations and feelings are amplified, often to an exquisite degree, against a dull background roar in which everyday surroundings are a hazy impressionist swirl.
So for me, the CTBF was a string of brilliantly coloured cameos that came spinning at me out of the blare and blur. I wanted to write down all my impressions: seeing people give Colleen hard cash for my infant poetry book, the buzz at the tiny and colourful Modadji stall, meeting lovely Fiona Snyckers in person at last and drinking way too much champagne with her, talking cats with Ivan Vladislavic and dogs with Tania Van Schalkwyk, buying too many books and staying up far too late reading them, welcoming Fuse and Exhibit A and Trinity Rising and Touch into the world, the tangible support of friends and Book SA bloggers (including Kate White, Sarah Lotz, Sally Partridge, Karina and Andre Brink) as I read at the joint Modadji sister-poet launch, talking and talking and even tweeting, more champagne, hearing Sindiwe Magona roar AND purr, John van der Ruit signing and smiling and doing a wonderful job of making books cool for teenagers, nipping out for my niece’s tenth birthday party and her face when she saw her name and poem in my book, being reunited with Hilda Twongyeirwe from FEMRITE in Uganda, wrestling a lump in my throat (and seeing Henrietta Rose-Innes fighting the same tears) as Isobel Dixon read from A Fold in The Map…
But by far the most intense was the experience of finding Anne (Landsman) — Anne the person, not the writer. We’re all familiar with the swoop of nostalgia, its power to reduce us to tears or smiles. But is there a word for what happens when entire blocks of memory, long gone, are restored, tumbling into the mind with total sensory recall?
It was Karina and her magical touch (all puns intended) who set the process in motion. And it was my landscape book that prepared the way. Anne spotted it in a bookshop some years back and bought it, wondering if the author was any relation to the Mrs Moffett who had once enabled a ten-year-old Jewish girl living in the platteland of high apartheid to fulfil her dream of learning to ride horses. And so when Karina asked her for a story for the Touch anthology, Anne wrote about horses. And she decided to use my mother’s name: “I just put it out there,” she told me, “to see if anything happened.”
Something did happen. Karina called me, to ask if the Mrs Moffett who had once taught riding on a farm near Worcester was my mother. I rang my parents. They remembered Dr Landsman, Anne’s father; they remembered Anne and her wild curls; my mother remembered giving her riding lessons. I had flashbacks: a little girl with a vivid face; the sandy soil of our riding ring.
But it wasn’t until I walked through the door on the first morning of the Book Fair and saw Anne that the lost memories came back in a brilliant rush. I knew who she was, of course: famous writer now living in New York City. I called out to her, told her my name. Her eyes flooded with sudden tears. So did mine. It was a moment of pure connection, instant time-travel. I was a child back under the sun and shadow of the Brandwacht mountains, running alongside our gentle and patient pony Locket, guiding a girl only a little older than myself over a set of cavaletti (very low jumps), hearing her shout with joy: “It’s like flying!”
I’m crying even as I type this, and I cannot work out why. Perhaps it has something to do with being given back something so lost from my memory, I didn’t even know it was gone. Perhaps it’s because Anne and I have reached an age where we know we’re mortal; she has lost one parent to death and another to dementia, I have lost the children I longed to have. Both of us know the frailty of our own DNA, and perhaps that is why the memories of childhood immortality are so precious. But most of all, Anne’s loss – she mourned bitterly when my family moved to Somerset West, in the wake of my dad’s decision to go to university full-time – echoes mine. That time on the farm was my last as a truly happy child. I had to say goodbye to my own horses, a loss I went on grieving for decades. I exchanged the mountains and the river washing over white stones and the vines and the peppery Karoo scrub for tarmac and streetlights and the cruelty of urban children who had never gone barefoot or climbed a tree in their lives.
Worst of all, I lost my magical centaur mother, who gentled Arab stallions (and who let me help because my child’s weight was less threatening to nervy young horses), who led us galloping above the treeline, who let us swim our ponies in dams, who taught me how to take a fall without hurting myself. In her place came a pinched and ordinary housewife who went through the motions for years. Until my father, at a time when we could afford neither school blazers nor a telephone, told her, “I can’t bear to see you like this anymore. Let’s find a stable where you can board horses and teach riding again.” I got my mother back again, but my own horses were gone for good, and the risk of loving another one was too great.* My sisters thrived, though: one ended up with provincial colours for three-day eventing.
Strange Fruit, my poetry collection, was about to be officially launched. I invited Anne, by now fresh from the triumph of winning the M-Net award; I showed her the poem I wrote about helping my mother – who looked after six horses (four of which were boarders) by herself, not a groom in sight – with the ritual of evening stables. When she saw the list of horses to which the poem is dedicated, her eyes grew wet again. It was because of her that I chose to read that poem at the launch. It probably meant little to the others present; for Anne and I, it was the key to a lost world.
We went out to dinner to celebrate – her award, my launch, but most of all, the finding not so much of each other, but a way back into a past when our parents were invincible, when little girls could fly courtesy of what Anne calls “animal kindness”. We could have talked for a week. Anne told me about falling off and winding herself, and the calm, practical way my mother made everything all right (another chunk of memory slotting into place, Ma doing the same for me). She tugged her hair back into a bunch, and the child she was danced between us. She showed me pictures of her husband, her children, her beautiful daughter on a glossy chestnut called Beau — the next generation.
By now, I had read her exquisite story in Touch, a true account of how riding can soothe the most damaged of children. (For those who have never had a horse of their own, imagine all the best qualities of both cats and dogs wrapped up in one animal, and then imagine that animal grown miraculously huge. It is the size of horses that make many nervous, but that horse-lovers find so comforting — there is so much to hug, there is such a sense of magnificence when you are aloft and in partnership with this noble creature.)
Thank you, Anne, for everything. And when I feel strong enough, I am going to read your books — which speak of that world we once shared, a childhood overlapping mine, but which deal with a rite of passage I still face — the loss of much-loved parents. This comes with love until we meet again.
* Funnily enough, in an entirely Book SA-oriented chain of events, I recently started riding again: none other than our very own Sarah’s huge, kindly Donatello — for which generosity, much thanks. I already fear the strength of my feelings for the darling old boy with his whiskery chin and rocking-horse gait. Better to love and lose, I tell myself. I’m sure Anne would agree.