THE morning smells like dagga. From afar I hear the melancholy voice of the muezzin calling the Muslims to prayer. There is something sacred about this atmosphere.
A soft drizzle falls and the wet streets appear silver in the sun that is peeking through the dark clouds here and there. It's freezing as I start walking from the Salt River Forensic Pathology Services, aka the old Salt River Mortuary on Durham Avenue.
I walk past an old hearse; several others are parked there. On average, more than 70 bodies arrive here over a weekend. There are 300 refrigerators, mostly full.
The late forensic pathologist Prof Deon Knobel told me once how relatives, when they have to identify a body, want to be left alone for a while. Then they like to talk to and touch their loved ones.
There used to be a window through which they had to identify the bodies, but he had it removed. Nor did he like the word corpse; it is a body.
During the farewell ritual, it is important that people can say what they feel. After all, this is the last conversation. The final touch.
The babies were always the worst. He could never forget the parents screaming in grief.
With these thoughts of death on my mind, I walk on; the voice of the muezzin still echoes, the rain has stopped, but a breeze touches me gently like a ghost's breath against my neck. Memento mori, for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.
I walk past cafes smelling of spices, painted in bright colours that vibrate and, in stark contrast to the house of the dead, radiate life and energy. In a side street full of houses, I see elderly women with headscarves smoking cigarettes on their porches.
They greet kindly, but don't like the camera. Some of them and their families have lived in these houses, painted in red, yellow and green, for two to three generations. Young men on skateboards race past me. Friendly dogs walk on the sidewalks.
Many of the women have worked for Rex Trueform for years. Former minister Trevor Manuel's mother, Philda, worked at this firm for 40 years and thus supported her family. Minister Ebrahim Patel's mother also made clothes here.
The men worked for the railways and Salt River station was one of the most famous railway junctions. There was a lot of work, especially to repair passenger coaches.
The steel and locomotive industries were important to Salt River's development in the early 1900s. There are even two hotels with names referring to trains: the Locomotive and the Junction. The latter closed, but the Locomotive has been steaming along for almost 100 years. A resident, Ziyaadah Lenders, remembers from her childhood decades ago that the trains had swinging doors.
There were private taxis outside the station and one driver, always wearing a black suit, was known as Uncle Archie. He spoke with a British accent, wore dark glasses and frequently pushed his pink and white dentures in and out of his mouth.
Freda Bond says that as a child she lived opposite the station. The Boswell Wilkie Circus staff slept in the train wagons when the circus was in the Cape.
In the 1960s, the children called the trains choo-choo locomotives. You could smell the steam and coal, and the locomotives whistled loudly and choo-chooed. The sounds of the station were the background music of Salt River.
She remembers the neighbourhood as mixed, with Chinese, white, coloured and black people. There were Muslims and Christians; everyone lived together and got along well. Salt River has several churches and two mosques.
As I walk through the streets, I see quite a few people talking to themselves. People who have been abandoned by the state and do not get the psychological help they need.
One man waves his arms in the air and shouts: “Give the land back to the Khoi!" He may have a point.
An elderly, gaunt man, like a character from a Charles Dickens novel, glares at me. His eyes are teary. He shyly looks away as he explores a rubbish bin.
Later, while I am eating a delicious toasted sandwich with white bread, cheese, tomato and egg, elegantly served in a polystyrene bowl on a red plastic tablecloth, a man enters the shop.
“I want two men and two moffies," he screams. No one pays attention; everyone is eating and looking at their cellphones. He repeats it.
I receive a message on my cellphone: “Hi Herman, I have some sad news to share. Jani (Allan) passed away last night at 11pm. She always spoke highly of you, your wit, character and kindness.” I don't know what to do with this information.
I long for my lady friend. Her last message to me was: “They tell me that I have cancer and I will not make it. Thank you for your friendship and loyalty over the years.
“This is so bizarre. I feel like Woody Allen. He said that he wasn’t afraid of dying. He just didn’t want to be there when it happened. If you need to reach me, WhatsApp.”
It's cold and suddenly I miss my mum. “I want two men and two moffies,” the man repeats loudly.
I walk to Salt River fruit and vegetable market. Everything is bright: the oranges, lemons, red and yellow peppers. It smells like a farm, fresh.
“What is this?" I ask a woman. It looks like a large, colourless watermelon. “It's wild watermelon," she replies. “People use it to make jam."
Her name is Rumina Adams. This market has been in the same place for 110 years and belongs to the same family. “I was born and raised there," she says. She points to a small house close to where we are standing.
“It's a single-storey house, but my dad was good with his hands. He made three floors in one room for our children. Three large double beds on top of each other, so that we could all sleep there. Later we had to move to a bigger house."
A man approaches; he has a friendly face. “Is this your brother?” I ask. She laughs and brushes a tear from her eye. “No, this is my son, Imraan.”
“Why do you look so young?" I ask. She points to the vegetables and fruits. “It's because of that," she answers.
I walk on and see a man who looks like he knows the neighbourhood. “Can I talk to you?" I ask. The rain has stopped and I'm standing on a street corner with my notebook.
His name is Boeta Achmat Bassier. He talks softly and has the manners of an old-fashioned gentleman. Boeta Achmat is 80 years old.
“I've lived here all my life," he tells me. “I was born here, I went to school here, got married, had five children, saw them get married; my parents died here, my whole circle of life is in this neighbourhood.”
He remembers the days of cinemas. There was the Majestic, the Palace and the Bijou. They were double-storey.
“The coloured people sat upstairs, the white people downstairs, but the Palace was mixed," he says. “As a child, there were Afrikaans white people living opposite us. The Truters, Conradies and Van Wyks. In 1949 they moved."
He is on his way to buy spices. His wife is cooking breyani for lunch. The whole street smells of turmeric and cinnamon.
I see the old Bijou cinema in the distance and remember when I attended an art exhibition there. A washing machine was part of the installation.
If you switched it on, it played Die Stem. “Uit die blou van onse hemel, uit die diepte van ons see!" I look up at the dreary sky and wonder what happened to that washing machine.
For nostalgic reasons I walk to Alfreda hairdressers, where seven brothers have cut the hair of generations. From when they were children until they became adults.
The last remaining one, Ismail Valley, cut my hair for years. He continued to work until he passed away at 88.
Where he stood, scissors in hand, he was born, he told me one day. It was a room in their house all those years ago. The whole family slept on the bed in that room.
The brothers started cutting hair when they were still teenagers. With the money they earned, all the brothers put their children through university. He told me some of the children are doctors, engineers, academics, you name it. And all this thanks to hair, hard work, frugal living, and never giving up.
One day I arrived there on my scooter. The door was closed. I knocked next door and a woman told me he had died.
Oh, Mr Valley, I wanted you to cut my hair for many years to come. I love you from the bottom of my heart. Trammakassie and sjoekran. Thank you for your stories and gentle ways.
When I heard he was dead, I sat down next to my scooter on the sidewalk and cried loudly. Jeez, that I could cry about a barber like a child.
I leave a double Jack Daniels with two cubes of ice at the Locomotive Hotel for last. My feet hurt.
This place is almost 100 years old. As a boy, I used to come here with my mother and her friends. There was a dining room, a lounge and a bar.
Children and women were welcome, which was not always the custom in those days, but with the Sunday buffet meals the rules were relaxed and the whole place was packed with a mishmash of people. There was a party atmosphere, fuelled by alcohol.
My mother had wonderfully common friends, including uncle Dougie and auntie Esmé, who introduced me to the Locomotive Hotel at the grand old age of eight. I think they were Cockneys and they swore, smoked and drank non-stop. He looked like Sid James and she like Barbara Windsor, the duo from the Carry On movies.
She had a blonde beehive hairstyle and large, round breasts, which she shook when she was intoxicated at the bar. But the jukebox had to play Elvis Presley's Jailhouse Rock.
The men applauded as she rocked and rolled with her breasts and false eyelashes. Uncle Dougie paid scant attention while reading his Scope magazine.
He was an electrician and drove a 1968 Morris Minor station wagon, which he always parked illegally right in front of the hotel. Although it was in the time of apartheid, the drinkers were of all races — tough and hearty working-class people.
They had exuberant personalities, mainly fishermen, tradesmen and railway workers: steam locomotive drivers, stokers and shunters. The women were wilful and coquettish, the men rough and rude.
There is still a juke box and for R5 you can choose five songs. The woman who works behind the bar counter is called Bridget van Neel; she has worked at the Locomotive for 18 years.
She loses her temper easily, but then she laughs again. When I produce my camera to take pictures, she shouts that I can't, I have to go and ask the manager at the off-sales. The answer is a firm no. She looks angry and wags her finger.
I decide to sit down. The woman next to me asks if I want to share a white pipe (a combination of marijuana and Mandrax) with her. Her hair is short; she looks like someone who could crush a cigarette with her bare foot. I politely decline.
I think of the writer Dianne du Toit Albertze, whom I met here for the first time. When writing her novel bottelnek breek bek, she said in an interview: “The girls around Salt River circle taught me how men pick you up on foot and by car."
I walk to the jukebox. The playlist is in front of me; I have my R5 coin at the ready. My hand hesitates in the air near the coin slot, but I keep it there.
My thoughts are with Salt River and its mishmash of people; outside the cold, black clouds, the storms, the old floors and chairs in the hotel that can tell decades of stories; but especially with the invisible people on the street who walk and walk and endlessly talk to themselves.
And no one listens.
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