There are houses you go to and you know they are just houses with no aspirations to being anything but a place where humans live. It doesn’t matter how palatial or expensively adorned or decorated they are. They could be under towering trees with big gardens or meadows and a fireplace but they never really rise up to anything but a house. Then there are houses that are homes. They could be elaborate houses with six bathrooms and a sunroom, or small houses with one shared bathroom, but it’s a home. You never know why some are homes and others are houses. You might think that sparsely-furnished houses with minimalist taste are houses because of their empty and yawning spaces, but you will soon realise that is not always the case. Then you might wonder if perhaps decor makes homes; that houses with beautiful rugs and antique-like furniture and paintings on the walls are likely to be homes but I have been to houses like that which didn’t feel like homes. There are houses where you walk in and you don’t want to leave in a hurry because they have a “warmth” about them, something soothing and seductive and comforting and safe. Then there are houses which have a coldness to them even when it feels warm and cozy. These are places where you only feel the dry bones of the house.
Sometimes houses becomes homes by the kind of smell they possess. A burning candle, the smell of cooking fat from the kitchen or the smell that comes from old sofas or carpets. There are homes that make you want to remove your shoes and put your feet up on the seat. Homes where you find yourself sinking lower into the sofa. Places that are so inviting you want to walk around and peer at a painting or a framed picture on the wall or stroke the petals of a plant. Then there are houses where you feel like your primary school headmaster will emerge from the next room with your half-finished homework, a cane in hand.
Sometimes it’s something as innocuous as the sight of a shoe. I once went to this house to interview someone and along the corridor, on my way to the washrooms, I saw two pairs of shoes. One of them was an old pair of faded Bata Ngomas that had gone through many washes and the other was a pair of padded Crocs that looked exactly like the type my mom owned when she was sick and her feet would swell. They were the same colour, almost the same size. Although seeing them didn’t evoke a wave of sadness or grief, I felt a great connection with that house immediately. It became a home to me because it had a piece of something that was quintessentially my mother’s. I felt nurtured in there. If the hostess would have found me along the corridor, she would have – to my embarrassment – found me holding those Crocs to my nose, smelling them to see if there was a message therein because I think dead mothers send us – their lost children – messages every so often.
How was the interview with Biko?
Oh, I don’t know. [Sigh]. I thought him very, very strange.
Because I found him smelling Auntie’s shoes in the corridor.
Ha-ha. What!? Nooo! That doesn’t sound like him at all.
Well. It was him alright. How do you know him, anyway?
I don’t. It’s Stella who referred me to him.
Aii, he is strange. Who smells strangers’ shoes in their homes?
The one thing that definitely makes a house a home for me is a pair of children’s shoes; a little person’s shoes left by the door. A little girl’s sandals with small little flowers on them. Or a boy’s shoes with superhero cartoons. Baby shoes soften the hardest of decors. You could have gothic themed decor, you could have the the head of a buffalo nailed to one of your walls in the living room, but if there are baby shoes, pink or blue or yellow little shoes in that house – that house automatically becomes a home for me. Those shoes say that a little soul lives in that house. It’s a house that’s fragile with love. A vulnerable house. Which means fear also lives alongside that love. Those shoes mean that in that home there is somebody who is carrying their own heart but also the heart of one other person. God lives in homes with babies. He just sits there, God, being the silent listener to every conversation, the unseen guest at every meal who doesn’t ask for the salt. He just sits there watching over his baby
And so when I find myself seated in this pool of silence in this house I look around trying to figure out if it’s a house or a home. I can’t say where it is but it’s a house with a small driveway. That tells you a lot about its status. Not many of us will ever live in houses with driveways. The house is silent and I try to find something in the living room, anything to offer me an insight into the owner’s personality; a photo of her kids, someone who graduated or something. The floor is parquet but most of it is covered with warm-coloured floor tapestry. There is a sculpture of a Roman woman with half her left breast showing. Although there is a TV remote on one of the sofas, there is no TV in the room. Or radio. There is a small rack of books against the wall and a small dining table made from old wood. The coffee table has numerous magazines, international titles on business and travel. A big wooden chandelier that looks like a Jack-O-Lantern hangs from above. A massive window to my right, covered with a thin, white sheer curtain, offers a view into a very brief garden and a green hedge. From somewhere in what I imagine is a kitchen, I faintly hear water running into a sink. Most likely the help who had ushered me in earlier wetting a cloth to wipe the table. There is no dog in sight. Or cat.
I was told the lady I’m to see will be down in a few ticks. An old clock on the wall, one that you are likely to see in a Sherlock Holmes movie says it’s 3:13pm, I have been waiting for 21 minutes. On a low curved stool is a pitcher of water with cucumbers, mint and something purple floating in it. Small glasses, turned upside down, sit next to it. I contemplate walking over and pouring myself a glass but I decide to chill. The purple thing could be fish. You don’t want to be the guy who drank someone’s fish.
Five minutes later, I hear a door opening upstairs and soft feet padding down the wooden staircase, slowly and carefully. Here comes the lady with her tired smile. I rise. I can tell she’d rather not smile but she has to. My first thought is “My God, she’s not anything like the 50’s age she had mentioned in her email.” She’s wearing a colourful kaftan that has purple flowers at the top and yellow ones at the bottom. She’s also wearing black tights and slip-on shoes that look oriental. The kaftan is designed to hang off her left shoulder and I see a colourless strip that is the strap of her bra, running over her shoulder. Her head is tied in a yellow and green headwrap.
She approaches and conveys her apologies. She was taking a bath and her baths can take the whole day, she says. She smells of things – flowers and fragrance and tropical fruits and sunlight and dew and wet loam soil and coconut and cinnamon buns and burning wax and warm mango and mint toothpaste and a burning matchstick, and potpourri…look, I don’t know, but she smells good.
“Would you like to sit outside?” she asks. I follow her through a door, down a small white corridor that smells of old paint and through a backdoor leading into the small lawn. There is a small garden where a sprinkler that is off sits in the middle of some crawling plants with small white flowers. We settle under an umbrella. When she rubs her knees, I can see a bit of her age from the back of her hands but otherwise she could easily pass for a 40-something year old woman. “You don’t look your age at all,” I tell her. She tilts her head to one side and says warmly, “Thank you very much. Why can’t I speak to people like you every day?”
The help comes. I ask for water and the silver tray with the pitcher and two glasses is brought and when the water is poured I see with a great deal of disappointment that the purple thing is not fish but some type of vegetable. “You must drink water a lot,” I say and she says, “I drink water all the time.”
“Do you drink alcohol?” I ask.
“I drink alcohol all the time,” she says and I laugh at that louder than I should. “Would you like some whisky, I know you love whisky and my husband keeps some in the house…”
“Naah,” I say. “I’m good, no alcohol for me now, thanks. Let me drink this, I want to feel healthy.”
We engage in small talk for a bit then she sighs and says. “I have been thinking about this and I know I’m the one who reached out and all but I might have to change my mind.”
“Oh,” I say.
“Yeah, I know.” She makes a sorry-face. “My husband thinks it’s not a good idea. My therapist says I should do what my mind tells me when I’m ready and I feel ready but I’m scared of letting go of it because this is the one thing that I have kept for myself since I was a teenager…how many years has it been? Over 40 years. I have hung on to it for all these years and it’s brought me -” she pauses, searching for the right words, “both pain and, I don’t know, something to engage me mentally and so when you write about it it will no longer be mine and your readers will own it and interpret it and perhaps give it a different meaning.” Pause. “I don’t know. Am I making sense?”
She isn’t. First, I don’t even know what the story was. Her email had simply said that this story is nothing I have heard before. I had written back and asked her for a small synopsis to see whether it was interesting or not and she had said she can’t have it on email whatsoever. That piqued my curiosity.
Now she had changed her mind.
This doesn’t happen often but it does happen sometimes; interviewees grow cold feet all the time. So this was not something peculiar.
It start to drizzle – small feathery droplets – and we decide to go back into the house. She switches on the lights in the living room and the chandelier glows orange-ish yellow.
“Is it possible to at least tell me what this was about?” I ask.
She’s seated at the end of the sofa with one leg folded under her, hugging a large throw cushion. She bites her lip and stares at the floor. We remain in silence for a while. Then she says, “I was raped by my father when I was 14-years old.”
People like to use the expression – “it sucked all the air from the room,” but they really don’t know what that feels like. Those twelve words suck all the air from that room and replace it with something dry and suffocating. It suddenly feels like breathing in a gunny bag. Those words were furthest from what I had expected. What is the textbook reaction to that? I stared out the window, listening to the sound of the slight drizzle on the cement outside. She looks at me and smiles without bravery. I realise that it’s the same smile she had offered when I had met her. She had copied and pasted the smile. And done a bang-up job of it.
“Okay,” I say. “That’s definitely heavy.” I want to ask a million questions but I realise that this isn’t going to be that conversation where I prod.
“Yeah. And then I got pregnant and then I had an abortion and then I spent my entire teenage years feeling filthy, feeling possessed by his evil. I felt that everybody could tell that I was dirty. But then I met and got married to a wonderful man who was the complete opposite of my father -”
“In what way?” I ask
“Meaning he doesn’t drink and smoke and he doesn’t rape,” she says dryly. “I married him to cleanse the dirt in me, to cleanse the evil of men, of some men, and it worked well, but still my father remained a part of me. I have struggled with my father since the rape, him as an idea and a feeling, and I have been in therapy all my life to just get him out of my system and remove him from the story of my life.”
She stops speaking and runs her fingers on the embroidery of the throw cushion. I stare at the Roman statue and wonder what the empress did the whole day because she had servants and slaves serving her and feeding her grapes and wine and cleaning her feet in buckets made of copper.
“Why did you reach out?” I ask her.
“Because he died,” she says.
“Who, your dad?”
“No. My father,” she says. “I wrote you that email the night I was told he died. He died of cancer. My therapist says I shouldn’t feel triumph but I can’t help it. I can’t help hoping that his cancer was the most painful type. The type that makes you scream the whole night with pain. He says that such feelings towards him mean that he still has control over me. Well. I’m glad he’s gone.”
“Did he ask for you at any time when he was sick?” I ask.
“Yes. Many times. I didn’t go,” she says. “The last time I saw him I was 21-years old.”
“What’s your last image of him?” I ask.
“Ugly. All the images I have of him are ugly.”
“Do you have children?”
“Yes,” she says. “Look, one day when I’m ready maybe I will tell you my story. It will take a whole day to tell my story.” She laughs. We talk a bit and then she sees me off. At the car in the driveway I say, “So I had scheduled this story to run next week, which means now I have nothing. Can I write about this conversation?”
She thinks about it and says, “I guess, but I will tell you tomorrow. Very, very few people know this part of my story and I’d like to keep it that way until we can sit down properly. But if I tell you to write this conversation please don’t write my name or what I do or where I live or my house number,” she smirks.
It’s amazing how when people say, I want to remain anonymous and so I change things around, their names and addresses and what they do for a living – make doctors engineers and IT people accountants and I change the number of children they have and give them bad hair or describe their hair when they don’t have any and make them short when they are tall, when the story comes out there are people who call me and say, “Biko, that sounds like so-and-so, am I right?” And I’m like, “Who? Nooo, hardly.” And they go, “Come on, it’s him/her. You know how I know?”
“How?” I ask.
“Because you mentioned that part where they say this and that.”
“That doesn’t say anything.” I feel my nose growing longer.
“It does. This is him/her, right?”
“Come on, Biko. ”
“I can’t tell you!”
“Kwani who do you think I will tell?”
“It doesn’t matter. Lenga. Look, how’s work, anyway?”
“Yaani, you are not going to tell me?”
“Why, will you rub friendship with me?” I say. “Will you block me and unfollow me?”
“You are an idiot. I can’t believe you.”
“I must have hurt your feelings. I’m sorry. I will send flowers.”
“Me I know it’s him/her.”
“Me I know that’s not English. What is ‘Me I’?”
The next day she called me and said the husband had okayed the writing of this part. I asked jokingly if he also doubles as a therapist and she said, “I met him when I was 21 and a mess. He was there when the rape was still fresh in my body when I could still smell my father’s cigarette breath. And he’s been there through my demons. So he’s been my therapist, my protector, my lover, my friend and my father figure.”
So maybe one day she will tell us her story, and maybe she won’t. Is there anyone out there who has a compelling story to share? Any age at all from seven years to 70? Is there a man out there who lost everything and stayed down for a while and rose up? Hit me up; [email protected]