For my dad
I am sitting alone in his old room, holding a photograph of a young man with curly hair and my father’s smile. This is the first time that I have ever seen my uncle, Jeremy. He is resting in the afternoon sun with contentment etched into the creases around his soft, brown eyes. Funny, I always thought they would be blue or green like my dad’s, and that his hair would be slightly straighter, but he has the same devilish grin; my inheritance. The sun soaks into his smile as he stares at his feet, amused by some now long-forgotten joke, or perhaps a silly impression my father has just done. The ones I delighted in as a child, relishing the slightly Bosman-esque stories he would tell me of unfortunate souls. Like the conservative trucker who had once given him a lift blaring the “Rocky Horror Picture Show" soundtrack until my father explained to him exactly what a “sweet transvestite” was.
One can almost hear the gentle rustling of the foliage which surrounds my uncle with dappled light and promises of Summer's forgiveness.
The next photograph is of Jeremy as a small boy. His hair is straight, and his smile is somewhat less refined than in the previous photograph, but there is the same gentle quality in the twinkle of his eyes. He is missing so many of his teeth that one could easily confuse his smile with the top of a “Lego” piece. His cheeks are littered with a cosmos of freckles, while his ears are so big that one almost fears a gust of wind could blow him away. He exudes certainty the way only a small, dirty child can, with his battle scars and bright eyes. He holds a piece of hosepipe, larger than he is, close like a Knight’s sword. It’s funny how neatly a hosepipe can fit a childhood. I recall a similar photograph of myself, triumphantly brandishing a fishing rod with a slightly crazed expression. I’m missing just as many of my teeth and I’m just as full of that absurd love of youth.
As I pick up a new photograph, the small boy is replaced by a nervous man on his wedding day. He holds his pregnant wife, Jackie, in his arms as she turns away, already cold to the touch. She watches her petals wilt around her with a simpering self pity. I try to forgive her but it’s hard to forgive someone who never really existed to you. It’s hard to forgive someone when all you know of them is pink pills and the ugly expression they pulled in their wedding photos.
My grandparents are together in the photos. I’d never seen them together before. My grandpa looks a little like a gruff catfish. I’d never met him but his slightly square chin betrays my ancestry. The headmaster, my brother’s namesake.
I barely knew my gran when she died. She only died when I was seven, but I have clearer memories of the flowers falling from the tree outside where she was living than I do of her face. I know she loved lavender, because she left us all her crockery. I know she loved Jeremy because my parents told me that she did. I know that they sat together and made apricot jam weeks before he committed suicide because my parents kept that jam in their fridge for years, unable to throw it away.
I would say “It’s funny how neatly a hosepipe can fit twenty-six years” but it’s messy. All those hopes and dreams spill out over the sides. I Googled “carbon monoxide poisoning” the other day, trying to understand his final moments. I wish I hadn’t.
This fixation must be grief. I know it’s grief, I’ve found myself furious or hollow or sobbing enough times to know it’s grief. But I don’t know if I’m grieving him or the fact that I will never truly be able to grieve him. I know there is a lack but I couldn’t tell you the shape or size of the hole.
Maybe it’s the hollow his jam filled in the fridge, or maybe it’s the veld where my grandpa scattered his ashes. Maybe it’s his saxophone or the Russian poster on the wall. Maybe it’s Langerman’s kop where my parents found him, where I played as a little girl, where the city lights are so beautiful.