Friday, December 29, 2023

The Plight of Pranks


The belligerent banging at our cabin door penetrated my deep sleep. It was an anxious, agitated, ugly sound. Instantly, there’s a sea-dread in the dead of the night. Muffled shouts erupted in the corridor, and then the distinct, “Wake up! Get up. Get out,” urgency of it assailed me. Outside the porthole, it was pitch black. I was on the top bunk. My wife was below. And no sooner had I tossed aside the bedding, and leapt down, than my ankles were in cold water! A certain panic arose. We both scrambled to the door, and as we yanked it open, gushes of deepening water swirled and sloshed and gurgled into our space, quickly rising to our knees. The corridor lights showed the water to be an ugly rusted brown, and it reeked. I waded back into the cabin to pluck at our already floating suitcases, since they had been packed and now waited only for our early arrival at Southampton docks, but a ship’s officer barked: “Leave that! We’ll retrieve your luggage. Go! Go! All passengers, go up to the lounge!”

The lounge? That might’ve been my first indication that things were not too drastic. After all, we were not being called to the lifeboats. Yet still, the ship was listing, astoundingly, and the water grew yet more voluminous as we struggled up our short corridor, of about four cabins’ worth of noisy people to either side, to join up with the jostling passengers, almost all in pajamas and night gowns, crowding at the T junction to the main C deck starboard passageway. At the closed-up corner cabin a purser kept vaingloriously banging on its door, and shouting alarms, but then we all sloshed on past, heading for the stairs. Still, some of us had to duck our heads down from the malodorous spray of the overhead sprinklers. Several of them, it was apparent, were spewing out this putrid smelling water as quickly as possible.

We straggled into the lounge, all of us looking dishevelled, and somewhat distraught. The ship’s personnel found us blankets, and pillows, and organized hot beverages. “Your luggage will be waiting for you,” they promised. And then it struck me. My artwork! Twenty years’ worth of sketches and water-colours and even an oil painting or two, all rolled together and left standing in the cabin closet, alongside my suitcase, with my brand new pair of shoes waiting on the floor. I had to get that roll of paintings!

“You! Where do you think you’re going?” A ship’s officer called out. I baulked. "Just got to rescue my artwork, Sir,” I tried. His finger shook. “Oh no you’re not. No one goes downstairs until we’ve found out exactly what the problem is, and that everything is secure. You stay here!”

Well, that’s how come, as I write, nearly 50 years later, I have so little of my formative work. But there were yet more dire consequences as a result of that sad evening aboard the last voyage of the Edinburgh Castle, on the 11th April, 1976. Indeed, we all might still go on learning from them.

As part of a Facebook group, called Union Castle Line Ex-Passengers, which I joined just last month, Pauline Hollis wrote: “I remember that well. The crew were throwing anything they could over the side. We saved a bag of the large Lego blocks. I seem to remember a stowaway and a breakdown somewhere between Cape Town and Southampton.”

Yes. In fact, back then Ian Pursch was the purser, and (his) Paula (not Ms. Hollis), was a junior purser too. They became friends of ours. We toured Scotland together. (My wife and I waited for them in London while they went on the last voyage, sans passengers, to the Edinburgh Castle’s sad grave.) But so too had someone else met her death on the last voyage of the Edinburgh. We learned that an old Scottish woman, the one in that corner cabin, hoping to make it back to her homeland after being in Africa all her life, had died of a heart attack. She never made it home. And as for the reason? Some partying prankster, on that final night of the long voyage, had held a match up to a sprinkler. And yes, when we docked at Southampton, the ship’s flag was at half-mast. One plays pranks, but there are consequences. And one sails, but all our journeys do come to their end.

Thursday, December 7, 2023

van Niekerk's Veracity


“I just wanted you to know I’m OK. I’m here, just letting you know,” he said last night, etched clear as a Zoom projection onto my white board in the university classroom. The other students, in their ranks up the rake of the auditorium seats, wondered how I might respond. John’s image, as a full-grown teenager with his black hair and chiselled chin, his strong brown eyes, and his swimmer’s fit physique, clad in a white shirt tucked into jeans, stood in front of a background of bright green trees.  Was he at the nearby Magnolia Dell? He was bunking, and we both knew it, but now he was contacting me, just to let me know that all was well. An intrusion on my visceral lecture about Dynamic Integration, I but briefly paused while I took in the alert senses of my students as to whatever I might say.

The thing is, the truth about one’s life gets tangled. We attempt to place happenstances precisely, but as we grow older the timelines overlap, and we can search for connections by which to slot in the particular events that demarcate our passage of time. Just when John had got up and left the classroom was not clear to me. (Is not clear to me.) Why I should be an old man, still lecturing, and he but a teenager, when he’d always been a constant friend in my own youth, was perhaps subconsciously understood, even while I was dreaming. Lucid dreaming, it is called. We know we’re dreaming. We can even direct our dreams. We can face into our fears. We can determine if we should give in to temptation. We can even be compassionate toward ourselves, and others, and we can awake with a sense of having washed away at our ‘dirty laundry’. There’s power in dreaming. We are not necessarily just ‘led by the nose’.

But the intrusion that John made into my classroom happened without my having beckoned it. Or did I not? Just yesterday I’d re-read the three-page story of John (on p. 303, of 50 Years On... Pretoria Boys High Class of 1970, Our Stories), and I felt sad that we had but one indistinct picture of him. Then too, I was reflecting on the great privilege of often being a guest at John’s parents’ house, in the prestigious neighbourhood of Waterkloof Ridge. Back in the late 60’s, a maid, a cook-boy (who was really a full-fledged man), and a chauffeur, as well as a constant gardener, complemented the house-hold staff. John appreciated them all. Laundry was always washed and ironed the same day. And the table was set for dinner guests, or luncheon guests, with crystal and... well, one gets the picture.

Thing is, almost 60 years later, just last night, I’d dreamed about John for the first time, (far as I can recall.) We never re-connected after High School. Conscription into the South African Army boiled my soul. I wanted nothing to do with my past. And whatever old school friends I had, I lost them all. But not in memory. My affection for friends stayed the same. It was just the detachment I threw around each of the people I’d befriended, so long ago, cordoning each off, like icons in the desktop of one’s computer screen, each with a program that goes unused, until one clicks it, (at times ineffectually,) open. (It’s a habit practiced, yet still too long.)

Well, John’s message has me deeply affected. It’s as if I’d been re-assured from another realm. Then again, quite aware of the synaptic gap that inhabits every one of our neuronal interactions, I’m much given to understanding the creative impulses inherent to the artistic, as well as the phenomenological bent, of those such as myself, who also are easily given toward making things ontological. ... Huh?

That’s part of the complexity of one’s thought processes, in dreaming. (Sometimes, even in daydreaming, complexity creeps in.) We make of our moments a kaleidoscope of meanings. And then we can conjure that which has some sort of sensibility to it all, for ourselves. Epistemology aside, we are, essentially, quite imaginative beings.

As for what my response was: “Thanks, John. Good of you to let us know you’re Ok. Communication is everything.”  And he disappeared. And then, John’s classmates smiled.

So, it goes. Such are dreams. And I wonder, shall we ever ‘meet’ again?

(cover designed by Justin Neway)