My family is defined by small moments, by snapshots.
No matter how many years pass once that second is framed you are stuck with it.
Great Uncle Wilsie who got his big toe stuck up the hot tap.
My mom who wore a bright green micro mini to meet my very conservative grandparents in 1961.
And me. The girl who ran away to the Transkei.
Except I didn’t. Not really.
It was eighteen years ago and not one goes by without someone reminding me of it.
It was the main source of conversation at my grandmother’s funeral. She even saved the newspaper clippings. My father mentioned it at my 21st, my wedding and whenever the mood strikes. I was blamed for being a bad influence when my younger cousin had a similar experience a few months later.
On the first day of school this year an innocent father of some small child happened to hit the nerve by remarking, “And it’s not like you ever ran away or anything?” I went from calm to spitting mad in under a second. “I did NOT run away. It was not my fault the car broke down.” Poor guy had no clue.
It is time to set the record straight.
Heartbroken after my first love kicked me to the curb and needing to crawl into a dark hole and recover, I retreated to my father’s apartment in Cape Town to lick my wounds.
Hearts recover quickly when you are young and by the time the bus arrived in the Mother City I was over the heartbreak, or at least over the grief, and moving into the “I don’t give a damn” category.
Eighteen years old and the world was waiting. So was trouble. I was ready for it.
I hooked up with some friends and proceeded to make a series of small decisions that butterfly-like have fluttered through the years regardless of all attempts to kill them off.
So, we have me – the Flower Child, the Free Spirit, the Mercenary (not really, he was a ex-Recce, but mercenary sounds better as a moniker) and the Fallen Angel, a Dutch import.
The Fallen Angel was one of Michelangelo’s creations landed on terra firma.
At this point no-one seemed to know where he had come from, but he took our little group of girlfriends by storm.
Seven of nine succumbed to his charms.
Years afterwards we compared stories and laughed at the same lines that brought us to our knees.
But I had all this to discover when I decided to cancel my bus ticket home and join the merry band on a trip to the Grahamstown Art Festival.
We did not travel in comfort or in style. The Flower Child and her boyfriend the Mercenary, a very manly man, had the front seat of a very small bakkie.
The Fallen Angel and I squeezed into what space remained after our luggage into the back canopy along with Bruno the German Pointer, a chainsaw and a surf board.
The close quarters didn’t dull our enthusiasm for the road trip.
Neither did our complete lack of a monetary safety net.
By the time we reached Grahamstown we were getting a little frayed.
I found a friend with a shower and took full advantage while the rest of the gang set up on a sarong the homemade, bamboo ashtrays and bongs with which they planned to make a financial killing. It didn’t go very well. We weren’t cut out for commerce.
In the pale light of the early morning the Free Spirit produced the world’s most inedible scrambled eggs. Things went a little south about here.
She caught a look in the Mercenary’s eye and shortly afterwards pans of soggy undercooked scrambled eggs were being thrown with deadly aim at anyone in the near vicinity.
The Fallen Angel, Bruno the dog and I squeezed under the bakkie in the hope of avoiding any fall-out with varying degrees of success.
Grahamstown breathed a sigh of relief when we hit the road.
By the time we ended up in East London the jalopy had developed a rather startling hiccup-like motion.
I decamped to my grandparents causing a bit of a stir at the old aged home where the inhabitants viewed our coming like small children watching a circus come to town.
Despite my grandmother’s advice to grab a flight home I was determined to continue on the Great Road Trip. Anyway, as far as I knew we were on way back home and it was the last leg. HAH!
We didn’t go home. We went surfing. In the middle of nowhere.
Welcome to the Transkei.
As we drove through the streets of Bisho I stopped to call home from a tickie box. Only, the lines out of the Transkei were down and had been for over a week.
Oh hell, I thought, it’s only a few hours.
We drove very very slowly along dirt roads while crowds of children emerged from the bush to surround the car and demanded sweets.
The Mercenary and his dog surfed.
I lay on the beach and listened to Bauhaus.
When the stars came out I realised we weren’t going anywhere. The stars poured down upon our heads and Jim Morrison crooned, “I met two young girls, the blonde was called Freedom, the dark one Enterprise”.
Our chariot was not going anywhere. Everyone but me seemed to take this in their stride. I knew then that my parents were going to be M.A.D.
And I was hungry.
We ate chicken liver pate that was gift for someone and traded our clothes for crayfish brought fresh out of the sea by nimble little pikinins. They squealed as they hit the boiling water and nothing has ever tasted so good.
Come the morning the Fallen Angel was dispatched to a nearby school for fresh water and the Spaza shop for milk with our last R10 note.
He returned beaming with a box of Umkomaas, cheerfully telling us that it was much cheaper than regular milk.
Stony faced we forced him to drink the soured congealing drink and watched in ill-concealed glee as he realised his mistake.
Later that day I ran out of cigarettes. This was the last straw.
Not to worry, it is the Transkei and a very happy farmer was provided some of the, um, local tobacco. It didn’t help the hunger, but it made the time pass quicker.
At some point the Mercenary decided that it time to talk to the police. Not a bad idea. Except that the resident policeman was three sheets to the wind and nodding happily at us proceeded to do nothing about contacting our families. Little did we know.
With no cash on hand, the Mercenary press ganged the Fallen Angel into chopping wood for the local hotel and the Flower Child and the Free Spirit were duly unloaded with all our belongings in the parking lot.
Shortly after they had disappeared into the undergrowth the two of us were sitting morosely and dust covered on our suitcases when we found ourselves held up at gunpoint.
It was my first real life example of why brothers and sisters should not marry and procreate.
The couple looked down the barrel of a very old and lethal looking rifle while drool leaked down their misshapen chins.
Right about now the Free Spirit lost her core of calm and began to get slightly hysterical.
I was exhausted, dirty, fed up and not in the mood. I waved away the gun and asked where the bathroom was.
Astounded, they gestured vaguely down the path and I collected my towel and shampoo and informed the Free Spirit that enough was enough and I was going for a bath.
It was the best bath I have taken. I lay in lukewarm golden coloured water and thanked the gods for indoor plumbing.
The communication barrier between us and them resulted in another dead end on the parental communication front and we retreated back to the beach.
As we sat in the dark glumly watching the flames send sparks up to become part of the Milky Way, we were joined by a Guardian Angel.
This local fisherman and Spaza Shop owner took pity on the poor little white kids and towed us off to take up residence in a series of dead bakkies parked at his store.
He explained that sooner or later… tomorrow maybe… just now… at sometime in the future… someone would be travelling into Umtata and would give us a ride to the city.
As he mixed up an enormous potjie of pap for his pack of little yellow dogs he must have caught our looks of salivating approval. Standing up he made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. If we were hungry he’d give us 10 minutes at the pap before he let the dogs out. We ate like kings.
Meanwhile in the real world about six days had passed and our parents were insane with worry. They tracked us by my ATM withdrawals and helicopters were sent out to scour the countryside for our remains. Friends and family members descended on the Transkei in all manner of vehicles.
And I lay in the courtyard of the Spaza Shop in the load bay of a rusty Isuzu wondering how the hell I was ever going to get home.
One morning a little white Honda pulled up at the gate.
The Mercenary’s mom had arrived.
She took one look at my dusty visage and said, “Your father is not impressed.” An understatement of the century, I think I blurted out, “Look, can’t you just leave me here?”
The Free Spirit, the Mercenary and I were unceremoniously packed in the tiny hatchback leaving all our belongings in the dirt.
The Fallen Angel was left to guard the remains if the bakkie. He waved as disappeared into a cloud of dust amid promises that the Mercenary would be back the next day. He ended up waiting nearly two weeks.
We wandered back into the furore over four missing teenagers in Umtata. Posters with terrible photos of us were photocopied and put up on every corner. We were greeted with effusive hugs and kisses from total strangers with no idea of what was going on. The local hotel put us up for the night and we hit the all you can eat buffet like the starving.
The drive home was taken in complete silence. You could cut the atmosphere with a knife. To this day my stomach tightens in dread when I take the last curve on Long Tom’s Pass towards Harrismith. It was there I fed coins into a call box and prepared to face the wrath of my father.
I was sent to Coventry. The remainder of my vacation was spent with my Godmother where the circumstances of my visit were politely never referred to.
When I finally made it home no-one said a word. It was the large pink polka dotted elephant in the room. Then my grandfather died, the one in East London.
Almost eight months later I found myself driving out of East London towards Umtata yet again.
As the final buildings faded behind us my father calmly turned his head and said, “We have 8 hours ahead of us. Why don’t you tell us exactly what happened in the Transkei?”
My father was an investigative journalist. It was the longest 8 hours of my life.
I would never survive Guantanamo, I cracked in under 2 seconds.
Eighteen years on, the Free Spirit has dedicated her life to saving an endangered parrot in New Zealand which according to Douglas Adams on TED is the world’s most stupid bird and mainly needs saving from itself.
The Mercenary was deemed responsible by the insurance company and had to pay off the helicopter search time for the next 10 years.
I grew up to be a hippie suburban mother and writer driving around in a 1976 VW kombi.
The Fallen Angel travelled the world, charmed more women than he could count and ended up taking staid corporate bankers out of their comfortable cubicles and throwing them off bridges and down mountains.
But on a beach in a quiet corner of the world, on an unspoilt beach a part of us will always be dancing to The Doors under the stars.
Damn if it wasn’t some of the best days of my life.