Cyprus Avenue turned out to be an upmarket street with tremendous views of Brighton Beach and the far side of the Bluff. Even though the Bluff headland seemed quite close to the southern beaches of the Golden Mile as it outlined the south entrance to Durban harbour, it still took a good half an hour to actually get to it. Negotiating the busy city centre streets and surrounding suburbs was tricky enough, and then I still had to find the street itself. My yellow Mini – nicknamed Cheese on Wheels by Nurse Cindy – looked rather out of place on this affluent street with its huge houses, well-kept gardens and expensive cars. This was the kind of suburb that put names to houses. And these were the kind of people who earned serious money and could afford to splash out on that ‘room with a view’ in one of Durban’s most interesting locations.
The street wasn’t very long and the sheer size of the properties which were all sea-facing dictated that there were only about twenty houses built on it. Finding out which one Emily lived in, of course, was the problem. But one thing about South Africa in general, and posh suburbs in particular, is that there is always a way of finding out this sort of information without resorting to knocking on doors and asking embarrassing questions. The people to talk to were the non-white servants who were usually in plentiful supply in the gardens, streets and local cafes and were often more than eager to spill the beans on their rich employers.
As I drove past a particularly large house with a beautiful oval-shaped swimming pool, I spotted a friendly-looking guy pulling leaves out of the water. I pulled Cheese on Wheels up, climbed out and waved over the whitewashed wall:
‘Hello, suwabona,’ I let fly with one of the few Zulu words I knew.
‘Suwabona, unjani, bassie,’ he replied.
‘I’m looking for someone. A girl—’
‘Me too, bassie,’ came the reply before he showed me a mouthful of irregular teeth and made the international sign of the large breast.
‘No, no, no.’ I waved my hands sideways and smiled. ‘I am looking for a particular girl. She has long dark hair, very pretty... um quite tall, blue eyes. She is called Emily.’
‘I know this person, bassie. She lives over there.’ He pointed behind me, to an unsighted area down the street. ‘She lives in the castle.’
And now I was wondering if this guy was some sort of joker taking the mickey or if I was simply losing something in translation. But I thanked him anyway, dropped him a fiver, got back in Cheese on Wheels and drove in the direction that he’d pointed.
Rounding a small bend I came across a house that immediately validated his description. A high concrete wall completely surrounded the property, broken only by an imposing black gate with a sign that read: Cliff Castle.
Above the wall I could make out the upper floor of a large building whose windows seemed to be secured by the thickest set of exterior burglar guards I’d ever seen. The concrete walls were painted a dull muddy colour and I counted at least three powerful-looking security lights mounted just below some of the upstairs windows. But the standout piece of architecture was located above this floor, up on the flat roof of the house. There were battlements. It looked like something from a medieval adventure movie: a concrete parapet which completely surrounded the roof, regular two and a half foot gaps giving the raised sections the look of jagged teeth.
I stared at this intimidating building and wondered how I would feel living in such a place. Then I played a game I often played when passing or visiting interesting houses. I tried to sum up the character of the place in as few words as possible. For example, the house I grew up in could be described as ‘fun and different’. I often thought of my one friend’s house as ‘slightly unstable’, but that probably had more to do with the condition of his parents than the building itself. This house, however, could be summed up in two words: keep out!
And those thoughts were soon backed up as I climbed out of my car and made my way towards the gate. Within seconds, two Dobermans and a large Alsatian appeared from nowhere, crashing into the gate and setting off into a chorus of unwelcoming snarls, howls and savage barks – so much for a quiet and relaxed entrance. I saw a gardener in the distance glaring at me and was just wondering if I should climb back into Cheese on Wheels and beat a hasty retreat, when the front door of the house opened and a woman emerged.
As she approached, I found my mouth falling open in wonder. She kind of glided along, her legs disappearing into a long flowing cotton dress and her hands barely moving as she walked. But it was her face that got to me. It was incredible: it was Emily, but an Emily twenty years in the future. The dark hair, the eyes, the shape of the face and even that curios yet mysterious expression were all there. Yes, there were a few more wrinkles under the eyes and the skin on her arms was freckled by the ravages of time and the African sun. But there could be no doubt about it: this was Emily’s mother, and this woman was as devastatingly beautiful as her daughter.
‘Can I help you,’ she said, her voice so soft that it was hardly audible above the dogs’ barking.
‘Hello, is Emily in?’ I tried to sound confident. ‘Would you please tell her that Michael is here.’
And now she frowned and cocked her head to one side, the look in her eyes strange and unsettling and I got the feeling that this was a house unused to unannounced visitors.
‘I’ll go and get her,’ she said eventually before calling over her shoulder to the gardener. ‘Abraham, please take the dogs around the back and then unlock the gate for this gentleman.’
So I watched her glide back into the house and watched the gardener do his thing with the dogs and all the while the doubts were building inside of me. Had I done the right thing in coming here? Shouldn’t I just have waited her out: if she was interested she would have eventually reappeared, and if she wasn’t... well then, I probably wouldn’t have seen her again. That would have been her choice and there was nothing I could do about it. But I knew myself well enough to know that I was being purposefully blind to cold hard reasoning. And I knew that, for the time being, this was something I simply wasn’t prepared to let go off.
The front door eventually reopened and Emily appeared. I suppose I expected another white dress and was slightly surprised by the jeans, casual top and sandals. She walked reluctantly to the gate and I could tell even from a distance that she wasn’t happy. Of course, I was hoping that she may actually be pleased to see me. But any optimistic thoughts were soon dashed when she opened her mouth.
‘What are you doing here, Mickey?’ In fact, close up her eyes showed even more than unhappiness. They were angry.
‘I came to see you, Emily.’ Our chess teacher at school liked to say that the best form of defence is attack. So I decided to up the stakes a bit. ‘I mean, you just fucked off. That wasn’t very nice you know and not a way to treat me. I mean, like... what did I do to deserve that?’
She sighed. ‘I know, I know. I’m sorry, Mikey.’ Her eyes softened. ‘There’s just a lot going on – stuff you wouldn’t understand.’
So tell me, I thought to myself. I want to know everything there is to know about you. But instinct kept me quiet for the time being.
‘So how did you find me?’ she asked. ‘Let me guess: you met Eddie and he told you where we lived.’
‘Yeah, something like that. Good guy too, we’re having a Van Morrison night on Monday. I don’t suppose you want to come?’
She studied me closely for a while before shaking her head.
‘I can’t. Dancing classes.’
Abraham, the gardener had appeared with a huge bunch of keys. He inserted one, unlocked the gate and gestured for me to come in. Ignoring him for a few seconds, I stared intently at Emily. This was it; this was the risky moment:
‘Look,’ I said. ‘Do you want me to come in or not? It’s up to you.’
For a few seconds I thought I’d blown it and wondered if this direct approach was about to explode in my face. She looked away and stood staring down at the ground as if some sort of great debate was going on inside her head. Then she turned, giggled and pointed over my shoulder.
‘Mikey, what the hell is that?’
‘The tidgy little yellow thing? Is that yours? You’re far too big for that.’
She broke into sustained laughter and even though Cheese on Wheels was once again the butt of jokes at my expense, I didn’t mind. In fact, I was ecstatic that my fantasy woman was once again laughing and that as she did so, I was easing my way through the gate and walking side by side with her towards the massive house.
* * * * * * * * * *
We started at the top. The roof was even more impressive when you were actually on it. The view was fantastic, and I stood for a long time staring over the battlements at the Indian Ocean while taking in the ant-like figures of swimmers and sun worshipers on Brighton Beach. There were a dozen or so surfers riding the breakers at the area known as ‘Cave Rock’ and the tide seemed to be coming in as the waves crashed over the walls of the big tidal pool. After a while, I found my eyes following a sandy trail leading down to the beach, tightly-packed bushes and trees suddenly evolving into golden sands and the bluest of seas.
Emily stood next to me and slid her hand into mine:
‘I watched a school of dolphins playing this morning. We see Fish Eagles sometimes, and monkeys come right up to the house to look for food. Mum’s a bit a bird-lover. She spends hours up here with the binoculars.’
‘What’s your mum’s name then?’ I asked
‘She’s your double you know. And your brother’s got the family look too – although he’s not as pretty as you.'
‘Well I’m relieved you think that.’
She poked me in the ribs as we walked over to a large garden table with an expensive-looking glass top, solid chairs lying in the shade of a multi-coloured umbrella. A maid appeared with a tray of tea and biscuits and Emily began stirring the pot and organising the cups. When she smiled, I held onto the moment – the contented couple enjoying the view and afternoon tea. The Emily I wanted seemed to have returned in the last few minutes leaving the unhappy, hesitant version behind. We were back in a good place, back walking on Durban’s beach and back to her childlike wonder, innocence and excitement. And I wanted to keep her this way for ever, even though I knew deep down that that was going to be impossible.
She handed me some tea.
‘The lights at night are great too. I love watching the passing ships and sometimes you can see the fires and hear the people having parties on the beach.’
‘I bet you’ve had a few of those,’ I said laughing. But her reaction was merely to turn her head away and fix her eyes on the surrounding battlements.
After the tea, I asked her to show me the house. I thought that was quite a reasonable request, but she seemed a little hesitant at first, eventually taking my hand and saying:
‘I’ll show you what I can. But Maisie’s cleaning the rooms so you probably can’t see everything.’
Downstairs was a huge living room area, leading out to a grand balcony which had a built-in barbecue, tiled flooring and another big glass table surrounded by eight metallic chairs. The bedrooms were all on the first floor and there must have been at least five of them although I did notice that one had been converted into a study. A narrow balcony ran past all the bedrooms and each room had a door leading onto it. I noticed that even these glass doors had been fortified with thick security grilles on the outside which seemed to take away the whole freedom of movement that the balcony promised.
Emily led me into her room. It was immaculate – almost nothing was out of place.
‘Where’s the posters,’ I joked. ‘David Cassidy, The Bay City Rollers... Gary Glitter?’
‘Nah, not interested, too old for all that.’ She laughed but somehow it didn’t sound too convincing.
I looked around the room and realised that she was probably too old for most stuff. Other than a king-size bed, one set of drawers, a built-in cupboard and a table, there was nothing in the room. There were no dolls, no forgotten toys, no records or cassettes and no books, comics or magazines. There was only one picture on the wall: a family picture showing her mum, a younger-looking Emily, Eddie and an older guy who I presumed to be her dad. I remember thinking that this was the bedroom of someone without a past – or someone who didn’t want a past.
Maisie was cleaning in the next bedroom. So instead of going there, Emily took me by the hand and looking up and down the corridor, whispered in my ear.
‘Come I’ll show you my Dad’s room.’
Initially I thought she meant the study. But we by-passed that and moved instead into what was probably the largest bedroom on the floor. Another king-size bed occupied the centre and once again there were the usual built-in cupboards, set of drawers, a comfortable looking easy chair and a bedside-table. A book lying on the table caught my eye: ‘Biko’ by Donald Woods.
‘Wow... I’m sure that’s a banned book, Emily. Is your old man some sort of political guy then?’
‘I suppose you could say that,’ she answered after a long pause.
My eyes swept across the room looking for other nuggets of information. I realised with some surprise that the burglar guards weren’t just on the outside of these windows, there was a whole tough-looking set on the inside as well. Now that was something I’d never seen before. I walked over to the door we’d just come through and tapped gently on the inside panel. It sounded as though it was made of some kind of metal and was as thick as a man’s fist – almost like something you’d find on a safe.
‘Your old man is really worried about security,’ I said. ‘No-one’s getting into this room without an invitation.’
‘No-one’s getting out either,’ she said.
‘So what’s he so scared of then? This is a larny neighbourhood if ever I saw one – hell it’s a lot safer that the beach front or the city centre.
‘The night of the long knives, I suppose.’
I had heard this expression before, many years before in a school history lesson. I remembered that it had something to do with the Nazis carrying out a series of murders in 1934 to purge the party of left-wing political opponents. So I stared at Emily with some confusion before she raised her eyes and said:
‘My father thinks that the blacks will eventually turn. It will be even worse than the Soweto riots. He thinks that they will attack us with pangas, spears, assegais and any weapons they can lay their hands on. They will come at night and in huge numbers. They will be organised and merciless. And they will kill every white person they can: men, woman and children.’
‘Wow... Jeez that’s pretty radical,’ was all I could think of to say. ‘A bit over the top, I reckon. But it explains the security, I suppose. You dad’s a pretty paranoid guy!’
She nodded and pointed to a drawer.
‘He’s got a set of keys in there that lock both these doors. That makes make this room almost impregnable. Another key opens a safe in that cupboard. And in that he’s got a collection of guns, knives and bullets that you wouldn’t believe. He’s even got a Samurai sword!’
‘Go on, show me,’ I said, not really sure why I wanted to see these instruments of mass destruction, but still kind of excited at the idea of it.
‘No I can’t, strictly out of bounds. Maisie’s cleaning next door and if my mum catches me... well... come on Mikey, let’s get out of here. I hate this room anyway!’
She grabbed my hand and led me back into the corridor where we nearly collided with Maisie who was busy brushing dust out of the next bedroom. The maid took one look at me and nodded a greeting, smiling as she saw my hand in Emily’s.
‘Is that Eddie’s old bedroom then?’ I asked.
‘Well it used to be Eddie’s. But it’s mum’s now.’
Well I thought I understood, and was still debating whether to ask a few follow-on questions when I felt her hand tighten and pull away. I turned to see her staring out of a window. A car had pulled up into the driveway and a man was busy unlocking the gate.
‘Ah shit,’ she said. ‘It’s my dad already. Quick let’s go back up to the roof.’
I followed her back up the stairs and we reached the battlements just as the car drove through the gates and parked up outside the garage. Her dad emerged and I got my first look at him in the flesh. I got quite a surprise – this guy was very different to the rest of the family. He had Eddie’s height, but it wasn’t the lean and mean build of his son. Rather he was overweight, a beer-gut hanging over his belt and an unflattering thickness to his neck and shoulders. His hair was closely-cropped and greying and a distinct bald batch was already starting to show through. Even his walk was different, none of the grace of Jane and Emily or the exuberance and vitality of Eddie. No, this guy moved with a determined and deliberate gait. He was a man going places, and there was something about him that instantly said to me: cop.
And as if to confirm my suspicions, now the passenger front and one of the rear doors opened and out got two other guys. One was in a dark suit which was similar to Emily’s dad while the other was in a standard police uniform. I turned to Emily:
‘Your Dad’s a cop then? S.A.P.?’
‘Try C.I.D. Mikey.’
‘Jeez... Criminal Investigation Department. That’s pretty high up, hence the suits.’
‘Look, Mikey,’ she said. ‘My dad’s a bit funny with visitors. He doesn’t really take to strangers. So... you know...’
‘Bugger off at the first opportunity?’ I asked, thinking I was making a joke.
‘Well, you know... don’t hang around longer than necessary.’
‘You’re serious aren’t you?’
She didn’t answer but it was pretty obvious that she meant it. And now it was like I was standing next to a different person again, the playfulness had rapidly disappeared. At the drop of a hat – or the arrival of a car – she had once again changed back into that unhappy, unsure and fearful girl that had met me at the gate.
I didn’t really want to meet her dad. But something deep inside me told me that it was important that I should.
* * * * * * * * * *
[Part of the Durban Bluff going out to sea and making a southern barrier at the entrance of Durban Harbour - the busiest harbour in Africa. The Bluff beaches are all on the near side. The other bit of land jutting out at the north side of the harbour entrance is Durban Point. A popular saying in Durban has always been: 'Durban's all bluff until you get to the point!']
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