Pictures of a suburban childhood


Pictures of a suburban childhood

DEBORAH STEINMAIR remembers her early years randomly and in fragments, aided by faded Polaroids.


MY past is not a photo album but a box of faded and musty Polaroid pictures, mixed up, not arranged chronologically at all. When I grab one to look at it, my gaze transforms it instantly. Sometimes, late at night, I try to piece them together into something like a mosaic. The wonderful thing about a mosaic is that unlike a jigsaw puzzle, each piece doesn't have only one place. If the tile doesn't fit, you take out mosaic scissors that resemble sharp pliers and cut it until it does.

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Sometimes, I try to organise memory snapshots from a specific period. When I was little we lived in Villieria, a suburb of Pretoria, in the last house before the mountain began. The world was just starting to make sense and I realised there were people who were different from us. Our neighbours were English. The first English word I understood was when a little girl pointed her finger and said, “Look!" Aha.

My brothers and I were crazy about the comic strips in the Sunday newspaper. That's why I knew the neighbour looked like Ben, Babsie and family's English neighbour: silver-grey hair with a slight curl, slicked back with Brylcreem, side-whiskers, always a cigarette between his lips, pale, thin legs. His wife looked like Andy Capp's wife, Flo: bigger and stronger than him. She proved it when they were in a car accident. It was before the days of Shatterprufe. After the crash, the car's windshield was filled with bright white lightning bolts, so he couldn't see out. She punched the windshield out with her bare fist and had to get stitches.

Silver diamond wire

Their house and yard were painfully neat. Not a blade of grass was in sight. Every surface was cemented and there were gleaming metal poles for the fence and laundry. The poles were regularly painted silver. I even think the diamond wire was painted. Inside, the house was dark and smelled of cigarettes. The living room furniture was still wrapped in plastic from the store to prevent any damage. There were no paintings on the walls, but mysteriously there were plastic spiders and flies. In that house, one couldn't play.

The neighbour's daughter, Shirley, was a few years older than me and terribly fixated on sex. One day, she said we should lie behind the couch in our living room and talk about naughty things. I remember she had just whispered that she had seen her dad naked when suddenly I saw my grandmother's carpet slippers at eye level in front of me under the couch. Grandma said, “If you hide like that, you're up to no good."

There was something off about those people. My other grandma, already 80 years old, fell down the stairs one day and landed at the bottom. She was short, stout, and completely unharmed. Unfortunately, I told Shirley about it. That afternoon, I was in our garden when I heard her dad burst out laughing. Long and with abandon. Eventually, he managed to utter a few words: “A ... granny ... who fell down ... the stairs!" I believed I must have misheard. No one would laugh about something like that. I blocked out this incident. I did this blocking out thing throughout my childhood and for a while after.

Our garden was terraced. We would often sit on the terrace in front of the house at sunset, enjoying a wide view of Pretoria. One day, at the exact moment my uncle's garden chair broke and he fell on his bottom, all the city lights came on.

One-armed sister

Every day I would go to the café about two blocks away to buy the Hoofstad for my dad. Usually, I would ride my red scooter (powered by foot), pretending it was my horse. In front of the café, I would tie him up nicely and secure his reins to a pipe. My horse never got stolen; those were different days. In the café, I would buy the newspaper and a lollipop — my dad would give me 2c every day for my trouble. Then I would go into the pharmacy next door. When I walked in, the pharmacist, an Afrikaans grandpa, would say, “Let me guess. A balloon for you, miss?" He was always right. I loved balloons.

On the upper terrace, where the mountain almost began, we had our treehouse in a large lilac tree. One day I was there alone, immersed in my own world, when I locked eyes with a big, ape-like figure. I froze for a few moments then slowly retreated. That day or the next, we heard a gorilla had escaped from the zoo. I didn't tell anyone about my experience because they wouldn't have believed me. I had a vivid imagination and would often make up stories.

Behind the lilac tree was the back of my dad's studio, and in front of it was an ash heap. There was a rope tied to the lilac tree that allowed us to swing high over the ash heap. One day I convinced my sister, who was four years younger than me, that if she held onto the swing with only one hand she could make a call (long before cellphones, of course) and talk to the queen of England with her other hand. So she did it and flew through the air like a rag doll. My parents weren't home, but fortunately my grandma was there, and she rushed over when she heard the shrieks, and took my sister to the hospital. Later, my grandma said to me with a solemn nod, “The arm is broken. A clean break." I saw visions of a limb detached from the body, and in that moment I knew that my childhood and my entire life had been irreversibly ruined, with a one-armed sister and a tremendous burden of guilt.

Coke bubbles

I was allegedly a weird child. One day, I was sitting on my dad's lap on one of those garden chairs that leave square imprints on your legs, and he offered me a sip of his Coke; my first. I took the glass and gulped it down in one go. I remember his astonished face. I didn't know how to explain that I thought it was like Eno — you have to drink quickly before the bubbles disappear.

Shirley's younger brother, Stanley, is probably now an ironman who has run many marathons, but he was a chubby and rude boy. One day, when my parents were out again — children could be left alone for long stretches back then — he barricaded himself in our outside room (nothing was ever locked in those days) and teased us through the window. I fetched a ripe tomato from my mom's vegetable rack and with a lucky shot, hit him square in the face when he opened the window again to tease us. For a day, I was my brothers' hero.

Actually, I hated that outside room, and actually, the door was sometimes closed. A lodger used to live there when I was four, and sometimes something happened that I forbade myself to think about. As with the gorilla, I didn't tell anyone about it because who would believe me? Besides, I sort of felt it was my fault. Some pictures you crumple up and throw away. Smash the tile into pieces.

So there are infinite moments in my head. Desired and undesired. Random and sometimes mysterious. I still walk around with a buzzing head, trying to make sense of them.

♦ VWB ♦

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