Like most people who have truly loved, Emil Coetzee knew the exact moment that he fell in love for the first time and would remember it always. He was standing outside the government-issued, bungalow-style house with whitewashed walls and no veranda that he called home. His back was against the wall and his eyes were surveying the vast veld—this beautiful and golden great expanse—that lay before him. It was a windy day that promised rain and the clouds were gathering gray in anticipation of the coming downpour. He peered up at the sky in time to see the clouds part and let the sun shine through brightly. God’s visit. That was what his mother called this phenomenon. The sun had been there the entire time, hidden by the clouds. Emil marveled at this always-being-thereness of the sun and then reached his hand up to the sun as if to touch it. The sun disappeared behind the clouds again, but now Emil knew that it was there and felt comforted.
He gazed out at the veld and took in its vastness. The wild wind made the elephant grass sing and swoon before it came and kissed his face. Emil closed his eyes, placed the palms of both his hands against the whitewashed walls, took a deep breath and let the beauty of all that surrounded him enter his body. As that beauty traveled through his body, it turned into something else, and he knew that this thing that he felt in every fiber of his being, this wondrous and rarefied thing, this thing called love, was something that he would cherish all the days of his life.
Emil was six years old when he, at that moment master of all that he surveyed, beheld the veld and fell in love with it. This was to be his first concrete and complete memory. There would be other memories too, of the British South Africa Police outpost at the foot of the Matopos Hills, which was where the government-issued, bungalow-style house with whitewashed walls and no veranda that he called home was situated.
He remembered the sundowners that his parents, Johan and Gemma Coetzee, hosted every Friday evening and how his mother, in her black drop-waist dress and red cloche hat, would frenetically flap and flail the Charleston before his father joined her for a foxtrot promenade, while Emil, wrapped and rapt in admiration, happily sipped on lukewarm lime cordial.
He remembered walking into the singing elephant grass of the savannah, losing himself in it, all the while knowing that he had found his true self, that this was his natural habitat. He remembered his black shadow traveling the most beautiful land ever created as he explored the environs of the Matopos Hills. It was at this site that he could find all the heroes he had learnt about in school: Cecil John Rhodes, Leander Starr Jameson, Charles Coghlan, Allan Wilson and the brave members of the Shanghai Patrol. It was here at ‘World’s View’ that they were buried or memorialized. The Matopos Hills was also the place where the god of the Matabele resided and where, accordingly, they came to ask for blessings, which for them always came in the form of rain. Proud men in loincloths and regal women in beads—rain dancers—would ascend the hills, then for hours there would be the sounds of drumming, stomping, ululating and shrieking, followed by an absolute silence that came before the rain dancers would descend the hills, looking, to Emil, as he watched in wonderment, as if they were carrying the solemn-looking clouds on their heads, shoulders and backs.
But probably the most magnificent of all the things at the site were the San cave paintings that told the intricate story of the hunt, that is, the story of how man and animal moved toward and away from one another in a rhythm that became a dance of respect, honor, love and ultimately death. His father would take him to the Bambata, Nswatugi and Silozwane caves, hoist him on his broad shoulders and together they would decipher the paintings—writing, really— on the wall. The narratives were realistic and fair: sometimes man outmaneuvered animal, sometimes animal overpowered man. Emil always imagined himself to be part of the hunt; of all the things in the world, this was what he desired most, to test his might and mettle against that of an animal.
In his dreams, he was something beautifully wild and ferocious. He ran barefoot through the grasslands, carrying an assegai in his hand and knowing exactly when to strike at the heart of the dark, looming creature in his environment. He was a hero and the creature was something out of a fable. When he awoke his heart would be pounding with an excitement that made him jump out of bed and run around the small patch of land that constituted their front yard, yowling and brandishing an imagined weapon as he prepared himself to vanquish the creature of his dreams.
What Emil did not recollect of his childhood, his parents told him. According to them, he had been born, after a somewhat lengthy courtship and hasty marriage on their part, at the Sandhurst Private Hospital in Durban on 18 April 1927. Six months later he was baptized and christened Emil Coetzee. Possibly hoping to have the relationship with his son that he had not had with his father, Johan had proudly named his son Emil after his father. While this would prove to be a rather damning inheritance in many ways, none of those ways were apparent at the moment of christening.
Although his name was Afrikaans, and his father’s name, Johan Coetzee, was also Afrikaans, Emil had in fact, for all intents and purposes, been born into an English family. This was because Johan was the product of a relatively short-lived and ill-fated union between a rambling ne’er-do-well called Emil Coetzee and a dancer named Bethany Miller. When he was still in his swaddling clothes, Johan’s mother had taken him to a home for orphans, waifs and strays that was run by the Pioneer Benevolence Society of the City of Kings. Her name was registered as Bethany Miller and her occupation listed as ‘dancer,’ which, as Johan grew older, he began to appreciate was a euphemism for something else entirely. Johan came to know of his father’s name and lack of righteousness because his mother had had enough time to tell the ladies of the Pioneer Benevolence Society of the City of Kings both these things before leaving her newborn baby son in their care. Consequently, whenever the young Johan did anything that was construed as vaguely untoward, he was warned vehemently against becoming like his father, Emil Coetzee, and, as a result, all Johan had received from his father was his last name, Coetzee.
Bethany Miller had left Johan at the Pioneer Benevolence Society of the City of Kings without so much as a final glance. This last detail Johan always added to prevent himself from feeling overly sentimental and thus romanticizing the memory of the woman who had abandoned him. It was at the Pioneer Benevolence Society of the City of Kings that Johan received a very thorough and very proper English education. He later used this education to apply for a post in the British South Africa Police and soon, by his nineteenth birthday, became a traffic controller.
This was a new position and both the BSAP and the young colony were extremely proud of having need of persons to conduct their traffic, because it showed not only that the country was growing, but that it was moving forward in a civilized fashion. Whereas in the early days the city fathers had been content to allow the barely manageable melee— the ox-drawn wagons whose span dictated the width of the city’s avenues, the horse-drawn carriages driven by the affluent, the donkey-drawn scotch carts that were often unpredictable, the always-speeding Zeederberg mail and passenger coaches, the zigzagging joyous jinrickshas, the always-on-the-go Raleigh, Rover and Hercules bicycles, and the hundreds of constantly to-ing and fro-ing feet—to create its own rhyme and reason, now that that most modern invention, the automobile, was added to this commotion they no longer felt safe leaving everything to chance. Man had long had mastery of himself and the animal, but the machine was something altogether different. Order would now have to be created out of the chaos and the BSAP happily provided the men that would do so.
And so, with a starched and ironed crisp khaki uniform, a polished silver whistle and a bleached pair of white gloves, Johan stood in the middle of the muddle and set it to rights. He did more than that, however—he performed his task with the grace, poise and mastery of not merely a conductor but a maestro, a virtuoso at his craft. It was pleasure in itself to watch him work.
The details of how well his father performed his job were contributed by Emil’s mother. She did not tell her son these details solely because she was proud of how well the man who would become her husband did his job; she told her son these details because they helped usher in the part of the story that she loved to tell best of all: the part where she, Gemma Roberts, entered it, brought forward by a force of nature.
An overly enthusiastic gust of wind had blown off Gemma’s straw hat just as she was crossing the intersection of Borrow Street and Selbourne Avenue, and she had chased after it unaware of, absolutely oblivious to, the fact that she had stopped traffic on both streets as she ran, giggling, through the intersection.
The way she had laughed, her blonde hair blowing riotously in the wind, had made Johan instantly fall in love with her carefree spirit. Instead of doing his job as the traffic controller, Johan had selfishly stopped traffic on Borrow Street and Selbourne Avenue and ignored the hooting, braying and neighing. At that moment all he wanted in the world was to watch the girl with the golden hair and experience her for as long as possible.
When he next saw her, a few days later, Johan had asked her for her name and she had given it to him: Gemma Roberts. She gently rocked her body beautifully from side to side, blushed, and batted impossibly long eyelashes up at him as she also gave him her address, even though he had not asked for it. As Johan wrote down her details he was glad that she did not know that his palm itched with the desire to touch her. He feared that she could hear his thumping heartbeat and worried that the sweat collecting on his brow would give the game away.
If she noticed any of this, Gemma had not been much affected by it for she had long been aware of the traffic controller’s maestro-like movements and matinee-idol good looks and in her mind he was as near to perfection as any man had any right to be.
Gemma gave Johan her name and her address in full view of those who were traveling on Borrow Street and Selbourne Avenue, even though she had spent many a morning in Beit Hall with other girls in brown cotton dresses with Peter Pan collars whose straw-hatted heads were all turned at the same angle toward the headmistress, Miss Grace Milne Langdon, as she warned them about the inherent dangers of fraternizing with the male of the species and strictly forbade them to do so in public, for an Eveline girl had to live each moment of her life with grace, dignity and decorum. Gemma took secret pleasure in the knowledge that her schoolmates from Eveline High School, who stood gawking at the intersection of Borrow Street and Selbourne Avenue, were, at that very moment, eating their hearts out.
As Johan frowned down at the address that Gemma had given him, she explained to him that, as she was seventeen, this was to be her last year at Eveline High School and that he would have to write to her when she got home to Durban. In fact, it was the very last day of her last term at the school. Gemma thought, but did not say, how serendipitous she felt their meeting like this at the eleventh hour was. And she felt certain that this man, Johan Coetzee, was to be her destiny.
Gemma received her first letter from Johan on 5 January 1921 and although it was written on BSAP official stationery and written with a pen whose ink tended to bleed and run, she chose to overlook these facts because the words themselves practically amounted to a declaration of Johan Coetzee’s undying love for her and made her heart sing and soar. Gemma found the idea of a courtship conducted solely via correspondence utterly romantic; this was very much like being a Victorian heroine and she could barely bear it. It occurred to her that, in entering her life, Johan had removed it from its trajectory of continued ordinariness and elevated it to a higher plane. As all great love stories with magical beginnings and happily-ever-after endings bloomed from the same bud that their own story had, Gemma had no choice but to feel very optimistic about her future.
She responded promptly, unabashedly protesting her own feelings of love on baby-pink writing paper decorated with silver and gold curlicues woven together to look like butterflies dancing at the margins. She wrote delicately and deliberately, with more care than she had ever written anything in her life, because she wanted Johan to make out every word and fully comprehend its meaning. After which she carefully folded the letter into four equal quarters and placed it in the waiting pink envelope. Just as she was about to seal the envelope she realized that she had forgotten something and gently removed the folded letter. She cautiously sprinkled a few drops of rosewater onto it, making sure not to interfere with the ink, and then placed the letter in the envelope that was already addressed to Constable Johan Coetzee of the BSAP.
Two weeks after Gemma had sent her letter, she, at this point breathless with anticipation, received another from Johan. His second letter was also written on BSAP stationery, but this time the ink did not bleed and run. Gemma noted this with great satisfaction. Thus began the love story of Gemma and Johan. Letters were sent back and forth containing words that brought their bearers to a fever pitch of passion and on several occasions made both the writer and the recipient blush profusely.
And so their courtship continued until a fateful day late in July when the letter written on BSAP stationery was intercepted by Mrs. Williams.
Mrs. Williams was Gemma’s maternal grandmother, whom she lived with because her own mother had married Anthony Simons, and he did not much take to the idea of children—his own or anyone else’s. Gemma’s mother had, six months before her marriage to Anthony Simons, been widowed by Gemma’s father, Philip Roberts, who had never been quite the same after his service during the Great War. Gemma’s mother had been planning to divorce him before he was mercifully taken by the Spanish flu while recuperating in a sanatorium.
When Gemma’s mother had remarried, she—believing that absence would make the heart grow fonder—was glad that Gemma attended a school that was as far away from Durban as it was possible to be. But when Gemma finished school a year later, Anthony Simons still proved intransigent when it came to children, and so Gemma found herself living with her grandmother, Mrs. Williams, which was what she had done every school holiday since the strain in her parents” marriage had first appeared.
This arrangement perfectly suited almost all involved as Mrs. Williams ran a boarding house, The Williams Arms, and, although elderly and often infirm, preferred to have a hand in the running of her establishment. Given that Mrs. Williams’s idea of ‘having a hand in’ consisted of barking orders from the comfort of her armchair, Gemma served as her much-needed eyes, ears, hands and feet.
On that fateful day in July when Mrs. Williams (and that was what Gemma called her grandmother, not ‘grandmother,’ not ‘Grandma,’ not ‘Nana,’ not anything affectionate, but Mrs. Williams—and this at the behest of her grandmother) intercepted the BSAP letter, she had come upon Gemma smiling to herself by the Welcome Dover stove in the kitchen while a meal she was preparing was burning to a charred crisp right in front of her.
Mrs. Williams had immediately deduced that something was afoot and, when the mail arrived, fetched it herself. She opened the letter from the BSAP clumsily with her stubby and arthritic fingers and in the process tore the envelope, not knowing or caring that previously all envelopes received from the BSAP had been opened with great care by a silver letter opener with a fleur-de-lis handle. Mrs. Williams had read the letter…well, not much of it, actually, she only read the name Johan Coetzee, and could read no more because all she could see was red. She had lost her two sons in the Anglo–Boer War, one on the battlefield and the other to dysentery, but she laid both their deaths at the door of the Afrikaners. After these deaths she had been left with only one child, and that child had grown up to give birth to a child who would, in turn, grow up to have something to do with an Afrikaner. This could not be borne. Grabbing Gemma by the hair and parading her through The Williams Arms, Mrs. Williams told her just as much.
All appeared to be doomed. Gemma allowed her heart to break. She let herself cry and mope…and to feel ‘blue,’ as the music from America suggested she should when dealing with disappointed hopes. Blue…she liked the color of the emotion, liked that she could feel it because her heart was broken, liked that her heart was broken not because she had been jilted but because Mrs. Williams, after everything the Boers had taken from her, would not countenance (her word) an Afrikaner for a grandson-in-law, liked that there was something wonderfully tragic about the whole affair.
Gemma’s mother had done right by her, probably for the first time in her life, when, on one of the rare occasions she visited her daughter, she spirited away a letter addressed to the BSAP and two weeks later clandestinely gave Gemma a letter written on BSAP stationery. Gemma was ecstatic that in his letter Johan said that he would wait for her no matter how long it took, till his dying breath if need be. Ooohhh…it was all just too romantic for words. Gemma, like Bessie Smith, had the Downhearted Blues, but also the satisfaction of knowing that her man still loved her.
Luckily for Johan, he did not have to wait until his dying breath because a few years after the clandestine letter arrived, Mrs. Williams suffered a massive stroke that left her speechless and even more dependent on Gemma. Gemma happily nursed her grandmother and, while caring for her, chiseled away incessantly at Mrs. Williams’s prejudice, at least where Johan Coetzee was concerned.
Johan was truly the best of men. Both his parents had died and left him to be raised by the exceptionally English ladies of the Pioneer Benevolence Society of the City of Kings. His mother—yes she believed Johan had mentioned this in one of his letters—had been very English before her death.
So you see, apart from the name, which Gemma agreed was rather unfortunate, Johan Coetzee was as English as they came. And truly there was nothing else to be done because he had captured her heart as no other man ever could or would. Gemma was relentless in her pursuit of her grandmother’s blessings and after almost three years had passed, Mrs. Williams made a sound in the back of her throat before resignedly nodding her head. Gemma chose to interpret this as her grandmother’s resounding consent to her union with Johan Coetzee.
An elated Gemma wrote to Johan immediately, but in place of a letter arriving within the fortnight, Johan Coetzee himself appeared and did so just in time because Gemma was on the verge of feeling truly blue. She was happy to see that he was even more dashing and handsome than she had remembered him to be and so, quite naturally, she fell in love with him all over again.
Weakened and suffering the humiliation of defeat, Mrs. Williams had no choice but to welcome into her home something she had never thought she would in her long-living life—an Afrikaner. And perhaps she made Johan feel too welcome because…well, because events transpired that made it necessary for Johan Coetzee and Gemma Roberts to be married on 18 December 1926, exactly four months before Emil was born.
Emil would live the first five years of his life with his mother and Mrs. Williams and the several tenants who had rooms at The Williams Arms. He would recall nothing of this time: of the frequent trips to the nearby Indian Ocean; of the waiting patiently with his mother for his father to arrive at the train station on one of his many visits; of the tropical vegetation that his mother loved and would always long for after Mrs. Williams had peacefully died in her sleep and Johan had come to take his wife and son away from the life that had been theirs.
Before Mrs. Williams died there had been talk of Johan moving to Durban to help take care of the boarding house, but Anthony Simons, whose fortunes, like the fortunes of many, had drastically changed in 1929, made his wife take over the running of The Williams Arms after Mrs. Williams died and let it be known that he still had not changed his mind about having children about him.
By the time Johan came to take Gemma and Emil to what they would all, from then on, call their home and what the BSAP accommodation listings described as a government-issued, bungalow-style house with whitewashed walls and no veranda, he was no longer a traffic controller. He had been promoted up the ranks to first sergeant and been assigned to man a BSAP outpost at the foot of the Matopos Hills.
It was here, at the foot of the Matopos Hills, that Emil would have his first memory and fall in love so effortlessly with the veld. It was here that his mother, missing the humidity of Durban and suffering through the dryness of the savannah, would tell him stories, all of which began with a girl wearing an Eveline High School uniform who, in chasing her straw hat across the intersection of Borrow Street and Selbourne Avenue, captured the heart of Johan Coetzee, a truly remarkable man.
To illustrate the highlights of her story, his mother often produced photographs of the moments she described and this is how Emil knew that he had walked into the Indian Ocean for the first time holding his mother’s and father’s hands, that he had once stood in a cloud of smoke tearfully waving goodbye to his father at a train station, that he had sat on his mother’s lap playing with her string of pearls while she wore a black dress and mourned the grandmother she had only been allowed to call Mrs. Williams. His mother told these stories with such great detail that he could see images, even those that had not been captured on celluloid clearly in his mind’s eye.
Yet, try as he might, Emil could not feel a real connection to these memories; though they formed a part of his life, the images they conjured did not move with the pace of real life. The people contained in these memories—his younger self, his in-love parents, his formidable-but-frail great-grandmother, his twice-married grandmother, his shell-shocked grandfather, his paedophobic step-grandfather, his dancing paternal grandmother, his never-doing-well paternal grandfather and namesake, the very English ladies of the Pioneer Benevolence Society of the City of Kings, the tenants of The Williams Arms, the people traveling on Borrow Street and
Selbourne Avenue, the rows upon rows of Eveline girls with their straw-hatted heads turned at the same angle toward Miss Langdon, the soldiers fighting the Anglo–Boer War and the Great War—all lived in a black-and-white world in which their movements seemed slightly speeded up so that everything they did appeared somewhat awkward, hesitant and haphazard. Their rare smiles, which were bashful, seemed to have been coerced, and all around them was a silence so profound that one felt afraid of breaking it. Their inhabited world was so pristine that all Emil could feel for it was a deep-seated nostalgia that would not allow him to connect further for fear of contaminating its bygoneness.
Excerpted from The History of Man by Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu. Used with permission of the publisher, Catalyst Press. Copyright © 2022 Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu.