Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Teacher, Teacher

I am working on getting my next book ready for publication soon. It is set in a high school in Cape Town, and to write it I drew heavily on my own teaching experience. The protagonist in my story, Amy Atwood, is an English teacher just as I was, although I need to say right away that she is not me - okay? Just making that clear from the start!

One thing I share with Amy, however, is a genuine affection for the teens I came across n my classroom. When I began teaching I was 22, barely out of my teens myself. You're the same age as my boyfriend! I was told once in my first year. And I was advised, more times than I can count, not to get too attached to my students. But I could never get my head around that. Over the years I built relationships with some of the girls I taught, relationships that were more like friendships than anything else. Even now, ten years after the last time I stepped into a classroom as the teacher, I still have contact with some of them, and the memories of those special kids inspired me to write Teacher, Teacher.

It was a privilege, I realize now, to be there for some of them when they needed me. Once, I left a class unsupervised because one of my girls was sobbing in the foyer, traumatized and devastated after a violent family incident the day before. I held her in my arms, unable to do anything about what was happening in her life except for pray for her as she cried. After that, this girl knew that she could come to me about anything, and she did, many times. More than once, girls came to me with questions about spiritual things. I sat at those old wooden desks with holes for inkwells and studied the Bible with them, prayed with them, counselled them. I was young and naive, and looking back there were things I wish I had done differently, things I said that I should not have said, things I should have done to help them that I barely considered at the time. But we bonded, over those desks, in my upstairs classroom, the air often thick with chalk dust and adolescent angst.

Once, at an evening function, I realized that one of my girls was planning to walk the 5kms home with her aunt who was her guardian. It was too late for trains and busses and walking was the only option they had, so I drove them home in my car. This girl was lonely, a bright child from a different province who after only two years of being taught in English was reading every book she could find and writing essays better than most of her peers who had been taught in English their whole lives. When the situation at home was unbearable one Friday she came to me in tears, and ended up coming home with me for the weekend. She slept on a couch in my room in the flat I shared with some friends from church. We went to the supermarket to stock her up on sanitary pads and we hung out. I probably should have got into trouble for that, but to be honest I don't think I even thought it might not be a good idea. I remember wishing I was older, that I could take her in and look after her, wishing that I could give her more than just my moral support and friendship in the turbulence that was her life at that time. But last year I needed something translated into her home language, so I reached out to her on Facebook and we had a chat. Almost twenty years later, the relationship is still there. If she didn't live on the other side of the country we could go to Mugg and Bean for coffee and talk literature.

I can't say that I took every opportunity to be there for the kids I taught over the years. I was wrapped up in my own narrow little life and didn't always want to reach out. Then I had my own babies and when my third was on the way I was so grateful for the option of being at home full-time for my own children. The other day I locked eyes with a young woman in a shopping centre. I felt a flash of recognition, and she smiled. Where do I know you from? I asked. She answered with the name of the school, reminded me of her name and let me give her a hug. My life is so full now that I can't imagine going back to school full time, but I remember and I am grateful. It was good to write Teacher, Teacher and explore those feelings, to remember how I felt about the privilege I had in knowing these kids and being part of their lives.

(The kids in this picture must be in their thirties now. They were my first senior History class in a school in Joburg and I abandoned them half way through their Matric year to have my daughter. They gave me a pile of baby gifts and told me I'd be a great mom. I don't know where any of them are now, but I remember all their names. You were awesome, guys.)

Sunday, May 26, 2019

African Detour

This is a short story I wrote as an exercise to practice a third person limited point of view. My daughter says it's "cute" ...

African Detour

Emmy thinks that maybe Mum and Dad are cross. Dad is holding the steering wheel very tightly and Mum is frowning, that deep furrowed frown that she gets sometimes, especially when baby Daniel is crying. But he’s not crying now; he’s sleeping in his carseat, all strapped in, and even though his face is redder than usual he looks all right to her. She likes him better when he’s sleeping; he can’t take her dollies and shove them into his mouth, or pull the clothes off. Mum even took away her baby dolly’s best little dress because it had buttons on it. He might suck them off, she said, and choke! She wouldn’t want him to choke, would she?

Of course not. She doesn’t want baby Daniel to choke. But she would like him to be better so he will stop crying so much and ruining their holiday. That’s what Dad said, that Daniel being sick is ruining their holiday. That’s why they had to leave the nice place they were staying, where there were pony rides and cartoons on the TV in the hotel room. They were going to the nearest big town to find a doctor for him, because it’s been two days of this high fever, Mom says, and she’s worried.

But Dad must have taken a wrong turn because now they are lost. Mum says it like a bad word: lost. She keeps taking out her phone and frowning at it, but it doesn’t do any good. There are maps on Mum and Dad’s phones, but they aren’t working now. Emmy isn’t sure why, but she thinks it’s because they are in Lesotho. The maps on the phones don’t work when they are driving in Lesotho. She takes out her own phone – it’s plastic and the buttons don’t do anything, but she pretends they do. She takes a photo of sleeping Daniel on her phone. Click! She says, pointing it at him just like Mum does.

It’s getting dark. She was hungry, but Mum gave her some raisins and a cheesy triangle. She would rather be having proper supper but there’s nowhere to have it here. It’s very bumpy driving on this road, and she holds her baby dolly tightly in her arms. Don’t worry, she whispers to her baby. We’ll be there soon.

The road is getting bumpier. Daniel is still sleeping but Mum keeps turning around in her seat and leaning over to him to feel his forehead. Last time she did that she shook her head and put her hand over her mouth. Oh Gareth, she said to Dad, and Dad put his hand on her knee. Mum always says Oh Gareth like that when she’s worried, or cross, or happy.

Emmy drifts off for a bit and when she opens her eyes the car has stopped. It’s properly dark now, and she can hear voices. Mum and Dad are not in the car; they have got out and they are talking to some people outside, Lesotho people. They speak differently here. Sometimes she can’t understand them at all. She peers out of the window and she can see two people with blankets around them. Mum told her about that – people in Lesotho wear blankets instead of jerseys and jackets.

Mum and Dad are talking too and she hears Oh Gareth again. Now it sounds as if Mum is crying. She doesn’t like that. When Mum cries she feels all strange and she doesn’t like it. She wants to cry too. The Lesotho people are talking loudly, and now one has opened the car door, letting in a blast of cold air, and is looking in at Daniel who has woken up. It is a lady with a round face, dark skin and a cloth on her head. She peers at Daniel and then over at Emmy. Emmy was about to cry too, but the lady smiles a big funny smile at her and she decides she doesn’t need to after all.

Then Daddy is unbuckling her seatbelt and lifting her out of the car, and she puts her head on his shoulder, shy to look at all the Lesotho people, cuddling her baby dolly close to her between Dad’s warm body and hers. It’s very cold outside, much colder than home. It’s because we are in the mountains, Dad had told her before. He had said then that there might be snow but she hasn’t seen any yet.

Dad carries her to a little house. It really is very little, only one room inside, and the only lights are some candles that one of the men in the blankets put there. Mum follows with Daniel in his carseat. He is crying now, but softly, not like his usual crying at all. Mum sits down on the little bed against the wall and takes him out. He’s burning up, Gareth, she says. He’s burning up!

We can’t carry on, love, says Dad. We don’t have enough petrol to get back and if we try we’ll be stranded on the side of the road. Emmy wonders what stranded is. It doesn’t sound good. She agrees with Dad; they should stay here. There is one little bed that Mum is sitting on, and a mattress on the floor. Oh Gareth, she hears again, as Dad puts her down. She checks on baby dolly. She has a fever too, and she is also crying softly. Mum is opening her shirt to feed Daniel, and Emmy does the same for baby dolly. Daniel and baby dolly always feel better when they have had a drink.

Dad goes out to get the suitcase and move the car. I need a wee, Emmy says to Mum, but then she wishes she hadn’t because Mum is still feeding Daniel who is fussing, and she is crying again. The lady with the round face looks in at the door.

Okay, nana? she says to Emmy.

I need a wee, says Emmy. The lady chuckles and says something to Mum.

Go with the nice lady, Emmy, says Mum, through her tears. Leave dolly with me, okay?

Emmy obeys and takes the lady’s outstretched hand. It is so cold outside, and so, so dark. But the lady holds her hand tightly and takes her behind the little house. They walk across some grass to a funny building only as wide as a door. Emmy looks up at the lady, confused. The lady laughs and opens the door. There’s a toilet inside! Emmy is so surprised she laughs too.

When Dad comes back Emmy is snuggling against Mum, baby dolly back in her arms. Dad opens the suitcase and gets out her Frozen pyjamas. She can just make out Elsa on the front, and the icicles all around. It’s funny, she thinks. Elsa would like Lesotho. It’s icy cold, just like her. He helps her put them on as fast as she can, so she doesn’t get too cold. Then he rubs her arms and legs up and down, up and down, so she giggles and says Don’t Daddy, I’m warm now.

He tucks her up on the mattress on the floor with her pink blankie that was in the suitcase. Maybe tomorrow Mum will let her put it over her shoulder instead of a jersey. She closes her eyes; she can hear Mum changing Daniel and she can smell his dirty nappy. She hears some more Lesotho people come in and talk to Mum and Dad, and then they go out again. Dad lies down on the mattress next to her, and then there’s a funny-smelling blanket over both of them – funny-smelling but nice and warm. Mum and Dad are talking softly, and Daniel has stopped crying.

He drank a bit, they say. And the Panado is staying down. We’ll find some phone reception in the morning, love. We’ll call someone to help us. It’ll be okay. Emmy is being such a star, isn’t she? They think she’s sleeping, but she’s not. These people are so kind. Can you believe it? She’s all warm now, and baby dolly is too. The voices fade, and she is asleep.

In the morning there is funny sweet white porridge for breakfast. The Lesotho people bring it in a blue tin bowl for her, and she sits on the step outside the little house in her Elsa pyjamas and her pink blankie and eats it all. Dad has gone to find somewhere where the phone will work, says Mum. Daniel is still sick, but Emmy thinks he’s not as red as he was yesterday. And he’s having some milk again now. That will make Mum happy.

She can see now that someone forgot to paint this house, and that there’s no proper floor, only hard dirt. Her fluffy slippers are all brown already, and all she did was go to the funny loo again. Dad took her this time. Look Dad, she says. There’s no flush! Just a deep hole! But Dad didn’t think it was funny. He just told her to hurry.

And there are children, lots of them, who want to touch her pink blankie and her hair. She can’t understand what they are saying, but she lets some of them hold baby dolly. She wants to go and play with them, but Mum looks worried. The nice lady with the round face pats Mum on the shoulder and tells her not to worry. Mum nods yes but Emmy knows she doesn’t like it.

The children show her where they climb rocks and where there’s a hole with a snake in it. They make snake noises and wiggle their hands and Emmy knows what they mean. They ask her name and she tries to say theirs. One girl a little bigger than her gives her a sweet in a plastic wrapper and Emmy eats it guiltily. Mom doesn’t let her eat sweets except at parties. But this is like a party, with so many children. A pyjama party, she thinks, giggling to herself. Mum has forgotten to dress her.

When she gets back Mum hugs her hard. I didn’t know where you were, she says. And Daddy’s not back yet. Emmy pats Mum’s hair. Mum is frowning again, and her eyes are red like Daniel’s.

Don’t worry, Mummy, says Emmy. Baby dolly is feeling all better now and Daniel is too. She goes over to him where he is sitting in his carseat on the floor. She leans over him and wiggles her fingers at him and he smiles, just a little.

And then Daddy is back with the Lesotho man and he’s smiling too. He looks funny; his clothes are messy and he hasn’t shaved, and there’s a smudge of dirt on his face. He hugs Mum and says something to her, and she says Oh Gareth again. But it’s a happy Oh Gareth this time.

She plays with the children again and eats some greasy little doughnut balls they give her. She doesn’t want the triangle cheese and the rice cakes Mum offers her after that. Daniel has a long nap and so does Mum, and then a car arrives with some petrol for their car. And she has to say goodbye to the Lesotho children, and Mum is saying Oh Gareth, she’s still in her pyjamas! And they are driving away down the bumpy road.

She looks over at Daniel. She finds a toy on the seat and reaches over to give it to him. He grabs it and stuffs it in his mouth. Was that a nice holiday, Daniel? she asks. He goos at her, and she laughs.
She’s lifting baby dolly up to show him now, and she sees Mum half-turned to look at them in the back. 

Oh look at them Gareth, says Mum, reaching over to put her arm around Dad’s shoulder as he drives. Dad lifts his chin to look at them in his rear-view mirror. She catches his eye and he winks. It was cold in the village, cold enough for Elsa and her icicles. But she's not cold now; the sun streams through the window making her sleepy. Lesotho is not so cold, she thinks, remembering the smiley woman, the funny toilet, the children and the sweet porridge. Elsa wouldn't like it here much after all. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2019


My husband is driving and my kids are in the back seats. I am in Gonubie for the first time in over twenty years. The last time I was here I was still a teenager, and my grandparents were still alive, living in the house they built. I am about to drive past that house now, just to look. Someone else lives there now; I know that. I just want to see it, and to show my family the picnic spot at the river at the bottom of the road. I want to see the black mud pitted with mud-prawn holes. I want to see the river that holds so many memories in its murky brown water, and look across to the other side. There used to be monkeys there, in the bush on the slopes of the opposite bank. 

I find I know the way, even though I have never driven here myself before. I direct my husband as we make our way down the winding hill. We are almost there.

We turn the corner and there it is. And something wells up in me, something heavy and buried deep. I cover my face and cry. Sorry, I say to my startled family. I didn't expect this. This pile of bricks and mortar, or rather the memory of what it once contained, has undone me. The tears flow, my husband stops the car, and I lift my face to look again.

This house was a constant throughout my childhood. We moved houses and cities but this house remained the same. A thousand kilometres from home, it was another landing for us. Every year we made the journey, squashed together in a hot car for ten hours, eating sausages and egg sandwiches at quaint concrete tables on the side of the N2. My younger brother would fall asleep between me and my other brother, and we would shove his lolling blonde head back and forth between us. The dog, patiently sitting at Mom's feet in the front, would pant loudly, her tongue dripping. The scenery would change and eventually we would be driving through the sub-tropical bush. When we spotted the enormous Humpty Dumpty outside the farm stall we knew we were almost there.

Then we would be there, stretching our legs at last on the green lawn, running to hug Granny and Grandpa. The dogs would greet each other, rolling around on the grass. I can trace the path we ran even now, up the stairs, past the London lamp, through the front door onto the cool, dark floor.  Past the drinks cabinet with its crystal decanters, through the sun room, out of the huge doors to the verhanda. I can see it all: the cane furniture, the jars of shells on the windowsill. The cigarette boxes with Granny's shopping lists written on the back, the ashtrays on every surface. Granny's knitting beside her chair, her cross-stitch framed on the wall behind it. Her funny-shaped Rubik's cube. The old radio.

And the verhanda, with its magnificent view of the garden, the neat beds, the steep steps, the perfect grass and of course the river at the end, far enough away that the jetty was hidden behind the trees. My granny has a river at the bottom of her garden, I used to tell my friends. Wasn't I lucky.

I stare at the house from our car, knowing my kids are tired and probably hungry and just want to go to the beach. But I am walking through every room in my mind. Even if I could, I wouldn't want to go inside now. I will remember it as it was. I will remember the pink carpet in the guest bathroom and the china dish with strong-smelling pot-pourri inside. I will remember Grandpa's blue chair with the holes in it from where he dropped his pipe and nearly set himself on fire. I will remember the china chicken on the dining room table and the little woolen pompom chicks inside. If it's all been renovated inside, if there are stainless steel appliances and granite counters, if it's open-plan now and there are someone else's books on the shelves and pictures on the wall, I don't want to know. It probably doesn't even smell of cigarette and pipe smoke any more.

I wipe my eyes and try to pull myself together. There is no more gold Mercedes in the garage. The couch Granny sat on to watch the news is in my house now, recovered and broken from where my brother sat on the arm. The oil painting done by a distant relative is in my mom's house and the straight-backed dining room chairs are at my aunt's. The bits and pieces of the life they built, the life they shared with us, the treasures they collected, are scattered now, like their ashes. I wonder what happened to the blue canoe, to the funny phone number index that popped open at the letter you wanted, to Grandpa's bowls that he polished in old stockings, sliding them back and forth while we watched from the steps. Where is the map of Malta? Where is Michael Monkey, who lived in Grandpa's cupboard? It's grief that is hurting my throat now, making me want to sit down on the pavement and spend an afternoon right here, alone, remembering.

It's all gone. We drive away and I show my kids the river from the picnic spot. There are thorns and my son is crying; I need to get his shoes from the car and stop the others from getting black mud all over their feet. But all the time I am fighting back tears. Being here is a reminder of a heavy truth: they built a life, it was rich and full, and now it is gone. I can walk through every inch of that house in my memory, but its substance has dispersed. Like dandelion seeds. Only an empty husk remains, minus everything important.

Later, we drive five minutes down the road to the beach. There are more memories, of Grandpa coming for a morning swim in the tidal pool, of the lucky packets and pink sweets he would buy for us on his pre-breakfast shopping trips. I swim in the waves with my children, still feeling blindsided by the intensity of my nostalgia. This is the best beach ever, they tell me, their eyes bright. Can we come here again?

I put it aside, the weight of the loss I feel today. I buy groceries at the shops that weren't here in the Gonubie of my childhood, and make lunch for my family. I will make new memories with the precious family I only dreamed of when I was last here, when I was an awkward teenager wondering what kind of life waited for me on the other side of adulthood. One day the life I am building now will be as scattered and lost as what I mourn today.

My son needs a towel, I find it and help him get the sand off his feet. We get back into the car. I am tired, and sad, and grateful. My husband drives, his hand affectionately on my knee. I close my eyes as we leave, and in my imagination I am walking down the steps, through the garden towards the jetty. I pass the rosebushes and the tree with the blobs of gum, the wrought iron bench and the boggy patch. I walk along the snake path and I can see the upturned boat, the grass growing long against its sides. I walk to the edge of the jetty and sit down, my bare feet in the water, not minding the sliminess on the dark boards. The water laps against the shore and the poles of the jetty, the birds call, something rustles in the bushes, and I remember. So much has been lost, but I am still here. I am still here, and I remember.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019


The advice out there is that when you are writing a novel, you should find other books in your genre to get a feel for what is out there and where your own story fits in. I found this a difficult task! In fact, the genre of my book was one of the reasons I didn't even try to pursue traditional publishing. Young Adult, yes, although ... not necessarily a teen story. Half of it happens when the characters are in their twenties. It's South African, and it's a Christian story. I never found something that fit all those categories; maybe I still will.

The closest I came was a book by Katherine Graham called Lifeline for Lee. It was about a young girl who was a lifeguard on Fishoek beach. I especially enjoyed the local flavour of it. There's something special about recognizing the setting of a book you are reading. I had only just begun writing Alex on the Edge, and although it was not overtly Christian, reading this book really encouraged me to keep going.

When I searched Young Adult Christian fiction on Amazon I mostly found American books about Amish girls falling in love. I was glad to find this series by Canadian author, N.J. Lindquist.

It is about a young guy navigating a complicated friendship and finding some spiritual clarity along the way. The main character was so endearing. Also, the author is, like me, clearly not a young adult! I found the story a little old-fashioned but still relevant and fun. And the first of the series is free on Kindle.

Another helpful discovery was 18 hours to Us by Krista Noorman. It was so good to read a book where there are characters who are unapologetically Christian but the story isn't preachy or overly sentimental. I have read some other popular contemporary Christian fiction authors and cringed at the way they write about faith. This book was not cringy at all! This is my aim - to write about the Bible and the Christian life in a fresh, unaffected way.

I can't not mention Robin Jones Gunn. It seems that her name is synonymous with Young Adult Christian fiction. Her best known is a series about a girl called Christy, following her romance, marriage and baby years. She has written over a hundred books! My favourite of the few I read was a spin-off, Finally and Forever, which was set in Kenya. I think they are great reads for young girls.

So I picked an unusual, rather tiny genre. I have plans to branch out in the future (I am a Robin McKinley fan forever and one day I'll get my fantasy novel together) but this is my spot. It's a fairly insignificant one for now but here I am. If you come across anything else like my stories, I'd love to hear about it!

Tuesday, April 16, 2019


Tell us one thing that is different about Lesotho, we said to our children. We were sitting in the dim evening light in the small classroom that was our home for the week. The paint on the walls was peeling, the floor bare, cracked concrete. There was a partition made of raw, untreated plywood, a badly fitting door, and a creaky old security gate between us and the dusty, rocky landscape outside. The teacher had kindly moved his piles of papers and books into corners to make space for us. We sat on the floor, on the pile of mattresses and sleeping bags that took up most of the space.

Our team had been in Teyateyaneng a little over a day, guests of Calvary Hope of the Nations Church for a week-long visit. We had all been restless the night before, disturbed by the preparations being made outside for a feast that was happening at the church the next day. There was talking and rustling movement all night, as women prepared great tubs of meat and cooked it in a huge pot over a fire a few metres from our door. We had woken to the smell of mutton, to people all over the place dressed in their finest, ready for the church service and the celebration that was to follow afterwards. Our kids went to church in a great striped tent for the first time, and heard the shrill, ear-splitting blasts of whistles blown by eager worshipers during the singing.

One different thing: for me, taking care of my family and helping to feed the team of young people we had traveled with, one very different thing was the water situation. There was one tap outside, and one in the kitchen. I carried water and sent my kids to the tap countless times with a five-litre plastic bottle to fetch water for hand washing and cup rinsing, for our baths in a plastic tub, and later in the week, to wash underwear and T-shirts when we needed them. And when the water was dirty, I carried it on my hip to a small sloped patch of ground and threw it away. No drains. That was my one thing.

The older children said it was different not having a real toilet, only a line of long-drops used by the church and the school. The language was different, the weather was different, there were few tarred streets. But our youngest, about to turn seven, answered without hesitation. By the evening of the first day all the local children knew his name, and he spent most of his time surrounded by children who appeared from every door in the scattering of homes around the church and followed him, pied-piper style, over the uneven, rocky landscape. There are no walls, he said, wide-eyed, thinking probably of the electric fences and automatic gates we have at home. Lesotho has no walls.

As the week progressed, we learnt just what that meant. No walls meant community. It meant children at our door, wanting to play, before we had even woken up. It meant a whole village turning up for a church celebration. It meant more children than we could manage for the daily puppet show, Bible lesson and games we brought, without a single flyer or advertisement. It meant a crowd for evening screenings of the Jesus film. It meant warm welcomes into stranger's homes to share our faith.

Of course there are walls in Lesotho, walls that my small son cannot see. For the smart high school student who translated our puppet shows into Sesotho, there are tall walls to climb before he can realize his dream of studying law at university. His widowed dressmaker mother, raising her sister's children as well as her own, faces barriers to the health and happiness of her family every day. The pastor of the church cannot pay his staff what they need to live. The work of the church and the school is frustrated by poverty and unemployment, although God's spirit still moves powerfully, changing hearts and lives, unhindered by such human obstacles.

Lesotho blessed us, for the week that we were there. The experience was invaluable for our family, and a necessary one for me to finish Alex on the Edge. Back now behind our walls, I remember the expanse of hills we could see from the big rock overlooking the unfinished church building. Alex, although he exists only in my imagination, found a new perspective in this different landscape, in an unexpected step away from his ordinary life. I think that our family did too.


(A poem from Alex on the Edge)

Snowy peaks and icy skies
Hills bursting folds of green
Lines and lines of flapping clothes
With houses in between
Huts of stone, walls of brick
And little shacks of tin
Thank you, land within a land
For welcoming me in

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Mrs Cloete

She was tall and thin, her hair a frizzy mess falling over her face as she perched on the edge of her desk in front of our class. She wore baggy clothes; long burgundy, black or olive green skirts, too-big cardigans and shapeless blouses. Sometimes her make-up was smudged, sometimes her voice was gruff and croaky, and there were times when she would excuse herself for five minutes and return smelling of smoke.

We sat in rows in her classroom in our navy and black uniforms, our stockings itching our legs, our shirts buttoned up to the neck, our stripy ties tucked into our jerseys, counting ourselves lucky to have this teacher who knew our names and looked us in the eyes, who did not hide her frailty from us, who handed back our work with long comments in her surprisingly pretty, neat handwriting. For three years we sat in her classroom on the second floor that looked out over the lawns and the neat gravel pathways of our traditional girls' school. We squeezed our almost-adult bodies into the wooden desks with the lids that flipped open to store our books, surreptitiously sweeping our pencil shavings into the holes that girls in long-ago years had used for ink bottles.

She made jokes, she laughed loudly, she read to us with passion. She checked our homework, sometimes, and did not hide her disappointment when we didn't do it. She told us about her children, how hard it was to be raising her two girls on her own, and warned us about faithless men. She told us about how she had once tried to write a Mills and Boon romance novel, and we laughed at the strict formula, how the first kiss had to happen by page fifty five. She loved Dylan Thomas and Shakespeare and Sylvia Plath, and because she did, we did too. She made stories and poems come alive, and I looked forward to every single lesson.

Sometimes we would get to class and she wasn't there. Sometimes she would be absent for a week, and return thinner, her eyes bloodshot and swollen. Once she was gone for a whole term, and for ten long weeks we had to endure Miss Wilson with her bun, brown skirts and sensible shoes. She was all right, but we missed Mrs Cloete. We were worried. There were whispers and rumours - a nervous breakdown, we heard. But she came back, and we were relieved. The smoke breaks were longer, and she was disheveled and pale, but she was back.

I handed in a poem, a parody of a nursery rhyme, and she gave me the highest mark I had ever got for anything like that. Then it was a short story, and a descriptive essay. I read her paragraph-long comments over and over again. She thought I was good. She liked my writing. We had to hand in a file of any kind of writing we liked, as much or as little as we wanted. I was so excited to show her the poems I had written and the first few chapters of the novel I had begun. She gave me full marks and another long paragraph of encouragement. We studied poems in class; she asked the class questions and I knew the answers. I could see the rhythm and the metaphors and the magic. I had so much to say that I kept quiet sometimes, not wanting to show off. There were others in the class way cleverer than I was, other girls who got A's for everything, even Physics and First Language Afrikaans. I wasn't like them but Mrs Cloete made sure I knew this could be my thing if I wanted it to be.

She had a birthday. We brought presents and had a surprise party, and she cried when she opened her gifts. I shouldn't say this, girls, but you are special, she said. She had never had a class like us before. It was our final year; we ploughed through Hamlet and Thomas Hardy, we dissected Ode on  Grecian Urn and laughed over malapropisms and euphemisms. She made sure we knew how to address a business letter and structure an argument. Yours faithfully. Leave a line or you lose a mark. We wrote our exams in the echoing hall and we were done.

I wrote out a poem she had loved, tiny as I could, and put into a tiny frame for her. It was strange to say good bye to our familiar world of lace-up shoes and hymnbooks, of blazer badges and bells and putting our hair up in ponytails every day. I was following my dream, going up to the University on the hill where I was going to be taught by lecturers who were actual authors, where I was going to spend four years preparing to stand in front of a classroom and teach grammar and poetry and Romeo and Juliet to teenagers, just as she had. It was strange to leave her behind. Would she be all right without us? Would any of her classes understand her the way we had?

I remember her telling us about Sylvia Plath, how she killed herself by putting her head in a gas oven. How awful, I thought, for despair to be so deep and dark that the only way out is to die. I remember it because in the end she also ran out of hope. She couldn't carry on. It wasn't enough, that she was a wonderful teacher. It wasn't enough that she had given me and the others so much. I wish, and I know we all do, that I had been able to do something to give her hope.

It seems almost meaningless to have dedicated my book to her memory, but I had to do it. She didn't ever know how much she encouraged me. I would love to send her an email: Mrs Cloete - remember me? I wrote a little story when I was fifteen and you told me to keep going. It took me nearly thirty years but I did it and I am so glad I did. Thank you for taking me seriously. I wish you could teach my daughter about Twelfth Night and Christina Rosetti and how to write a precis. I so wish you had found a way out of the darkness.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Character Aesthetics

I've been playing around making collages that give a sense of the characters in my book. Apparently these "character aesthetics" are a thing.

I have learnt so much doing this self-publishing thing. It's easy to do, yes - but not so easy to do well. I keep having to make decisions about how well I want to do each step. This weekend I was reading up on book design - who knew that someone actually has to design the fonts and spacing and page numbers and all that inside the book?  I learnt a new word: kerning. It's the way the letters are spaced in a font. I had no idea.

I made these in Canva, which is a free online design tool, using free stock photos from Pixabay and Unsplash. It was fun.

Saturday, February 9, 2019


Sometimes the characters in my head want to write poems. Sometimes I let them.

This one came from Jill. Alex helped to stitch up her arm and it made her wish it was that simple to help him with what he was going through.

Wishful stitches

A tiny needle, a tiny thread
A pull I hardly feel
You tie the knots and close a wound
And I begin to heal

If only I could fix your fear
And stitch your grief away
If only I possessed the skill
To heal your heart today

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Rocks and Islands

At the end of 2017, I heard that a friend of mine had written a book that was going to be published. It was a memoir, not something I had ever thought of doing, but it made me think. While we were on holiday in Hermanus with my parents over Christmas, I had a thought - why not revisit the book that had been floating around in my head ever since I was in High School? I started dreaming and thinking about it, and thought I might as well give it a try.

I started writing Alex on the Edge when I was fifteen. I began it on my own at home, and expanded it a little when we had to hand in a "Creativity File" for English class in Grade 10. Our teacher encouraged us to try out our creativity however we chose, and gave us free reign to hand in whatever we liked. I handed in a thick file of poems, pictures, a short story or two and of course - a chapter or two of my great teen beach romance novel. I have never forgotten the encouraging comments my teacher wrote on my file, urging me to carry on and finish it. But it was the nineties - I was fifteen and lazy, we didn't have a computer in the house, and my mom's ancient manual typewriter had torn ribbons and hurt my fingers after half a page.

I tried again when I was twenty, after doing a creative writing course at University. My lecturer asked us to write episodes of our lives, and I wrote one about my innocent aborted attempt at novel writing. To my surprise I was encouraged again to keep going and finish! I tried again, this time on the family PC in the lounge, printing out my efforts on the back of scrap paper. I managed a few more chapters this time, but gave it up as way too much like hard work. I still have a pink plastic-covered folder with those faded old pages in it.

So about a year ago I opened a file and called it Rocks and Islands - the original name from version one. It came from a Simon and Garfunkel Song about someone who shut himself in his room and cut himself off from people after a heartbreak, because "a rock feels no pain" and "an island never cries". Somehow that angle wasn't part of the story any more, but I kept the working title. Once I got into it I couldn't stop - Alex and Jill came alive in new ways and new characters formed themselves in my mind, sometimes surprising me with the things they said and did. My house got messy and my kids ate fewer vegetables, the TV was boring and when I went to bed at night I dreamed about Marshall Bay and Lesotho. It was hard but it was wonderful. I had never, since I had directed a school play in my early years of teaching high school, loved any kind of work so much.

So that's how this new chapter began. It's been a good one, and I hope this is just the beginning :)