2016 SA Writers College Short Story Competition Winner


'My Mother Takes One Look at Me... and Gives Me Away'
- by Bruce McKenzie



I am 75 years old – five years beyond the recommended biblical expiry date. Like many iconic figures before me, I am being prevailed upon to write my memoirs, before all my wit and wisdom is lost to the world for all eternity!
Where do I begin? I could, like Charles Dickens, begin at birth? – no, I will begin at conception.
The first most spectacular thing I did was get through a condom. I, of course, do not have any memory of this feat – and what follows is based on hearsay:-
It is 1958. I am eighteen years old – tallish, good looking, athletic build, cocksure. I have just matriculated from Estcourt High School with a string of A’s. Next year I go to university – my parents are not rich, but I have a scholarship.
I am also, through no fault of my own, a virgin; but if I weren’t, I would not want my elders to know because in these days, sex before marriage is considered sinful (fornication).
I am holidaying at the rich home of a friend in sunny Durban. Life is good – suntanned beaches, beautiful girls, dancing all night, surfing all day.
*Elvis is king! Johnny Mathis woos the world with ‘A certain smile’; Shirley Bassey belts out ‘The greatest love of all’. Little Richard pounds his piano,
Bebopalula she’s my baby
Bebopalula I don’t mean maybe
Bebabaluba  - that’s my baby now
My baby now, my baby now, my baby now.

The elders are not amused. The Beatles are banned in South Africa.
West Side Story hits the cinemas. What a sensation! We see it multiple times. We know all the words to the songs:
‘There’s a time for us
A time and place for us
Hold my hand and we're
Half-way there.

‘Dear officer Krupkey, we’re down on our knees.
Because no one wants a fellow with a social disease’.

‘I feel pretty, oh so pretty that the city should give me its key.’
The Rocky Horror Show waits in the wings.

I receive a letter from my mother. She has found a packet of condoms in my school blazer pocket.
She is not shocked, she is not judgmental or censorious, she is not in tears, she is not upset. She just kindly kicks me in the balls.

“Condoms are not reliable -  and you are living proof of that.”
What! How! When! What! Who me? Not wanted! Born but not wanted! Not planned for, not eagerly anticipated - no choirs of angels, no smiley faces – just another mouth to feed and arse to wipe.
I am devastated – not only “not wanted’ but actual physical barriers were put into place to prevent my entry to earth. I owe my life to a defect in a piece of polypeptide plastic.
My holiday is ruined – plus – the thought of my parents having sex at all (never mind for non-procreational, recreational purposes) is not one that I would have chosen to be forced so brutally to entertain.
I have a friend who is so appalled by the thought of his parents having sex, that he pretends that he is adopted and that his parents are just very good friends.
Please note that my pals and I carried condoms mostly for bravado and to fuel the fantasy that we might suddenly come across a girl of easy virtue and should, like good boy scouts, be prepared. In the small, church-going town of Estcourt, nestling  peacefully in the cosmos-covered foothills of the Drakensberg, girls of easy virtue were as plentiful as Martians with green heads. 
When I get home I cross-examine my mother. She spills the beans.
It is 1940. A great war is raging in Europe. Millions of people are killing each other (at the final count 60 million). The men of South Africa are preparing to join the fight and go kill or be killed.
My mother and her three sisters have returned to the family homestead in Dundee there to wait out the war – with the old folks. The family homestead is large, but not that large -  nine children (three still in nappies), four adult women, two aging parents and a stray 93-year-old aunt with Altzheimer’s.
Money, food and space are rationed. There is no room to swing a cat never mind another baby.
The four sisters make a pact:  There will be no farewell sex with their spouses unless the fore-above-mentioned spouses wear condoms. Signed and sealed over a nice cup of tea.

My parents-to-be are arguing. He is of the opinion that, if he is to go off like a knight in shining armour to save the world for an indeterminate period, the best condition he can leave his lovely wife in is with a baby at her breast – like a sort of human chastity belt.
She is of the opinion that if he is to go off for an indeterminate period or maybe forever, she does not want the responsibility of caring for and raising another child (she has three already) on her own.
Mommy-to-be wins – and backed by the pact with her sisters, keeps her legs resolutely closed. Daddy-to-be, uncharacteristically gives in and none too graciously dons the unreliable condom.
I am conceived.
Back to 1958. I approach my father, now fifty – he is not very approachable – conservative, puritanical, taciturn, loving but not demonstrative. We have never discussed things of an intimate or sexual nature.
I broach the subject of ‘condoms and not being wanted’ He surprises me with a devilish grin. “Can you keep a secret?” He asks.

“Of course I can,” I say.
“When your mother wasn’t looking, I pricked a hole in the condom with her birthstone (opal) broach pin, lying unsheathed on the bedside table.
Thanks, Dad.
Thanks, Mom.
It would take more than a world war to keep me out!

Give me a child for his first seven years and I will give you the man.'
                                                                                                            Jesuit Maxim

It is 1940. I, like Charles Dickens and the rest of mankind, am born.
I am not a pre-possessing sight. Blue in the face, gasping for oxygen, held upside-down by the feet, smacked, slightly squint, covered in mucous and if you don’t hold my head correctly, it falls off.
My mother is screaming obscenities – which no one knew she even knew.
My mother takes one look at me and gives me away.
My mother is stressed; up to her eyeballs in domesticity, demanding offspring, rationing – trying to keep the place clean and the family equable. Her beloved is in Europe fighting in the great war; she misses him terribly and dreads everyday to hear of his death.
She gives me to my grandmother (Gran).
Gran and I take one look at each other.
I see a wiry, grey-haired woman, her once-clear English completion wrinkled and spotted by the harsh African sun. She wears thick-lensed, myopic glasses.
She sees little squished, head-lolling me.
It is love at first sight.
Gran is a gentle, educated woman, once a primary school teacher. She loves education, reading, music, cooking and gardening.
She adopts me completely; bathes, dresses, feeds, soothes, cuddles, hugs, tickles my toes and blows raspberries on my tummy. I fall asleep on her lap and awake in her arms. She calls me her ‘hot water bottle’.
She massages my body with scented oils and exercises my limbs. She feeds me warm, creamy Jersey-cow milk with homeopathic additives. I become almost robust.

She helps me to walk and teaches me to talk. Then my A,B,C’s and 1,2,3’s and do, ray, mes. She reads me wonderful stories. For hours she plays the piano with me on her lap. Mozart, ‘The Rose of Tralee’, ‘The Rustle of Spring’, Chopin, ‘Scheherazade’, modern romantic melodies…. Gran can play everything and anything. Gran is a consummate pianist.
She teaches me about cooking. She calls me her culinary assistant – makes me pronounce it and spell it.
The small-holding has seven different types of fruit trees and delicious black grapes that pop out of their skins into your mouth. There is a large vegetable garden. We bottle yellow peaches, make fruit jams and grape jellies; pickle onions, beetroot, beans; we store pumpkins and gems. There is no freezer or fridgedair. We bake breads, biscuits and cheese scones in an old black log-fed stove. Newly baked bread and melting farm butter…ambrozia!
Gran teaches me about gardening. She calls me her ‘Horticultural Aid’ (makes me pronounce and spell it. My present-day proclivity towards loquaciousness is definitely gran’s doing)
We plant everything from seed, slips, cuttings and bulbs – pansies, petunias, primula, pentstemons, phlox, pinks, snapdragons, mesembryanthemums, Namaqualand daisies; vegetables galore and berries (straw, goose, rasp and black).
She protects me from the jibes and jeers of my siblings. They tease me because I cannot catch (butter fingers), throw or kick balls (at least not without falling over backwards). My siblings are jocks and cannot conceive that I am not. Gran tells me that proficiency in ball games is not a prerequisite for success, and cites many famous people who weren’t. (Alexander the Great, Rudy Valee, Tarzan…).
I am consoled, but still wish I could.
Gran breeds chickens for eggs and meat. There is a large fowl run with an old fecund fig tree at its centre. As a toddler it is my favourite place; fluffy yellow chickens, cocky cockerels, resplendent scary roosters, broody hens. I perch on the lower branches of the fig and eat its fruit. I talk gibberish to my fine feathered friends – they cluck and nod in agreement. I get covered in lice.
Gran dunks my head in a bucket of diluted sheep dip, then squirts it with a hose. It stings but does not deter me from returning to the chicken run. Gran squirts the entire fowl population with diluted sheep dip – all of us chickens are deloused.
Gran is always encouraging: “There is a clever lad, there is a brave boy, there is a bright spark.” I am the apple of her eye and she of mine.
She is my heart’s mother, my friend, teacher, protector. She is my sine qua non - my I.D.
When I am seven she dies. I do not understand. My heart breaks. Like looking at yourself in a mirror and the mirror shatters – and you cannot see yourself anymore.
I grieve for a long time. There is a lonely boy I am without you, Gran. There is lonely I am.
My real mother understands, is kind and patient. I recover and when we leave Dundee and move to Colenso, mom takes Gran’s piano with us – for me.


  picSome 3 or so years ago I attended my son’s wedding in Canada.
On my return the church, at which I am the organist, asked me to write an article for the church magazine.
The article was so well received that I got turned on to the brand new idea that maybe I can write.
I joined a writer’s group called ‘shared pencils’ run by Rae Nash. They guided me to keep writing and encouraged me to enter the short story competition.
I am looking back at my life and trying to put together a collection of short episode’s which I call ‘Literary Selfies’.



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