WHEN I dug out the Panasonic answering machine and placed it before me, it was more than just a defunct appliance. The past came back to talk to me in voices from long ago.
There it was, like a museum piece, with two cassettes. A moment of silence, please. Cassettes, too, are now something from the past.
The first cassette was for the owner's message, to say you can't answer the phone now, please leave a message. The second was for the caller to leave one.
If you wanted to listen to a message and pressed the button, it started playing with a loud bang. You had five minutes, then it cut you off.
I remember how I once came home from the beach, young, about 25, sunburnt, feet full of sand, my skin salty from the sea. It felt like a time when nothing could go wrong.
Then straight to the answering machine to see if the red light was flashing. Exciting because you didn't know what adventure might lie ahead.
First message: “Hello, Cobus here. I’m braaiing some chops tonight; would you like to come?”
Then a second beep. “This is Koos [Prinsloo]. We’re visiting Cape Town and staying in a nearby backpackers. Let’s make a plan to meet. Here’s the backpackers’ number.”
There were no cellphones, remember. I called Cobus on his landline and said yes, we’ll be there, what can we bring?
To reach Koos, I dialled the number of a payphone, the owner answered and I asked to speak to Koos. We made an appointment.
The bearable lightness of being
I had forgotten how light it was to be alive, and in retrospect, how carefree we were. There was talk of Nelson Mandela’s release; the political future looked open and fresh. We could feel it.
Sometimes the messages were long, like those from my friend Graham’s dreadful godmother, Tannie Renée, who loved her booze and Valiums. Once she was as high as a kite, there was no stopping her.
Her voice was deep and drawling, more like the moaning of ghosts in dark caves. A tragic person with a bitter and dark Bette Davis mood that persisted, even when the machine cut her off.
She filled the whole cassette with her messages, the full 30 minutes, lashing out at the world. You could smell the smoke, alcohol and pills.
Messages from lonely people. Sandile was a writer; he called regularly: “Help me, buddy, I can’t stop drinking.”
There were other sad messages. I learnt about a close friend's death on that machine. He had jumped off a building in Hillbrow. His friend Bernard thought it good to just leave the news on the cassette, in his monotone dove-grey voice.
One night there was a party at our apartment. I thought I'd heard the phone ring. There was laughter and jubilation in the dining room.
I peeked into the room and saw the red light flashing. A message from someone to tell me in passing that my father, aged 47, had choked to death in a restaurant in Port Elizabeth.
Old Sammy, loved booze, steak and pretty women. What a way to go.
I listened to the message again and heard the sounds of glasses clinking and people partying in the background. The death tiding, while life goes on.
Poets, shopping and mountain climbing
There were also a variety of lighter messages. People inviting me to parties, the beach or the Labia cinema.
The poet Sheila Cussons was still alive then. I went shopping for her once a week. Just a few items.
I clearly remember her repeating the list twice in her beautiful voice on the cassette. “One package of mature cheddar cheese. Two onions and four potatoes. A pack of Provita.”
Another poet, Ina Rousseau, would be angry if I didn't call her back immediately. “It says, ‘I will phone you back as soon as possible', but then you don't!” Over time, she stopped calling, and later became a recluse.
That grumpy old man I loved so much, Barend Toerien, who could improvise a lavish tapestry with mere words, thought nothing of calling at five in the morning. The message: “Oppies, oppies, is Lategan oppies, I want to go mountain climbing." (“Are you up, Lategan? I want to go mountain climbing.")
Little did I know how unblemished life was back then, that we were really living saffron-golden days without even being aware of it.
The author Darrel Bristow-Bovey once wrote about something similar. He had also found his old answering machine and listened to the many messages. He writes, and I paraphrase: “I was deeply moved to discover there were so many people trying to talk to me at the time.
“In my memory it had been a lonely time. I had wandered through the streets of a new city (Cape Town) a faint trace of a man, invisible.
“But that wasn't true; there were friends and people who cared, people who reached out and continued to reach out. Why was I sad when I should have been grateful?"
Yes, Darrel, sometimes it takes an old answering machine to give birth to your old life again; to awaken the feeling that life was indeed good.
Just as now we sometimes look back on our lives and think: there were bad times; we survived them; they were also beautiful. So why were we so ungrateful?
Abba's Ring, Ring:
♦ VWB ♦
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