Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Ah, Africa. (And music.)

My friend Chef BelAir’s post about crossing the South Africa/Botswana border at Pont Drift reminded me of my and my then-husband’s experience at (relatively) nearby Martins Drift back in 1988 when we arrived there with a truck full of canned tomatoes, dried pasta and mosquito repellent (among many other things), to start a 2-year contract running a tourist camp in the Moremi wildlife reserve.

For those who weren’t born then (and that includes my children and all their friends), that was 2 years before Nelson Mandela was released from prison – our country was still clawing its way out of a civil war that had profoundly affected most South Africans in some awful way or another. And back then, white South Africans in particular weren’t welcomed with open arms in neighbouring African countries. Not that my husband or I really took this on – we considered ourselves ‘other’: my father was a journalist whose material was routinely censored, whose colleagues were frequently detained, and who numbered among his friends black people; and my then husband was a neophyte Rhodes journalism graduate who’d got into trouble with the security police for calling the Settlers’ Monument in Grahamstown something along the lines of ‘an outdated anachronism sailing on a questionably stormy political sea’.

Arriving at a small, hot hut in the middle of nowhere (uh, Martins Drift) around 10 in the morning, we were met by 2 teenagers toting rifles. One instructed us to park our truck, which we did (lickety-split), while the other pointed us in the direction of the lean-to. We entered, and found ourselves facing a long makeshift wooden counter. Directly in front of us was a handwritten sign: ‘Passport control’. A few steps to the left, on the same counter, was another handwritten sign: ‘Customs’.

One of the rifle-toting teenagers swaggered around and popped up behind the ‘Passport control’ sign.

‘Welcome to Botswana!’ he barked. ‘Passports, please!’

We handed them over. He looked at them very carefully, then said to me, ‘You are married?'

‘We are,’ I confirmed.

‘But your surname is different,’ he pointed out.

‘I opted,’ I said, with all the arrogance of a 24-year-old, ‘to keep my own surname.’

‘This is not right,’ said the teenager, cocking his rifle. (Okay, he didn’t. But he could have.)

‘It is so right,’ I said. ‘Taking your husband’s surname is an anachronous residual of an outdated patriarchal era. It implies an ownership that any opinionated person, male or female, would waste no time in discarding. It denies deliberation and promotes gender-based mental servitude of the very type that we, as liberated and free-thinking people, should be at pains to eliminate at all costs.’

The teenager fingered the trigger. My husband kicked me. ‘She forgot to have her passport updated,’ he said.

‘Ah,’ the teenager said, lowering the rifle. ‘Women, eh? Can’t live with them, can’t kill them.’

(I could almost swear I heard my husband say, ‘Don’t be too sure,’ but it could have been a hippo snorting in the river, and anyway, he was probably still miffed about the wedding-pic mixup back at home.)

‘Proceed to customs,’ the trigger-happy teen said, stamping our passports.

‘Customs’ was 2 steps to the left, in front of the hand-written sign that read ‘Customs’.

We took 2 steps to the left.

So did the trigger-happy teenager, who then looked up as if he’d never seen us before, and said, all anew, ‘Welcome to Botswana. Do you have anything to declare?’

I laughed. C’mon. I thought he was joking.

He raised his rifle. ‘You think customs is a joke?’ he asked.

‘God, no,’ I said. I really didn’t. We’d spent hours filling in every official form known to man for the week before we left, detailing every single item on our truck. Customs itself wasn’t a joke. The trigger-happy teenager pretending he’d never seen us before – that was funny. ‘But you, you’re…’

My husband kicked me. ‘She has a mental disorder,’ he said. ‘She’s sick. Ignore her.’ He produced our sheaf of paperwork and put it on the makeshift wooden counter. ‘It’s all here,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry about my wife’s illness, I also struggle with it. I hope it won’t affect how you…’

It did. They made us unpack the truck. They counted every can of tomatoes, every packet of spaghetti, every mosquito coil. Car batteries, camp beds, tents. Boxes of raisins and rusks. Tins of coffee and tea. Two computers. Trunks of books. Candles and lamp oil. Spare parts for generators and cars. Windscreen wipers. Spark plugs. Tarpaulins and tins of tuna. Running shoes and radios. The list was, almost literally, endless.

So – not a great start, but, finally, as dusk was falling, we were off again, on into the wilds of Botswana. And not too many kilometres later, we ran into a roadblock – yet more teenagers toting guns, and some of them drunk this time. ‘Keep quiet,’ my husband hissed at me. I was tired, and a bit scared, so I kept quiet.

And, this time, there was a bit of argie-bargying as my husband tried to avoid having to unpack the entire truck again, but finally he poked his head in the passenger window and said, in a defeated kind of way, ‘Get out and help.’

Bloody hell.

So I got out – and, fortunately, the first object I pulled off the back of the truck, prodded by several young, drunk, homicidal Motswana, was my guitar, which had ended up on top of everything only because of the copious repacking we’d had to do at Martins Drift.

‘Eric Clapton!’ one of the drunk teenagers cried, abandoning his gun with miraculously childlike enthusiasm. He grabbed the guitar and strummed it (terribly). ‘Bob Marley!’ he shouted. ‘Peter Tosh!’

Thank god for music, which, as it turns out, does transcend all. The militant youths took turns playing (apparently) ‘No woman, no cry’ on the guitar, while we all sang. Then they told me they were going to keep the guitar, and I cried a bit, after which they gave it back and apologised, and we were allowed to move on to Francistown. Without having to unpack the truck. 

* The guitar – I bought it from my old friend Nina (who I’ve recently connected with) back in the early 1980s, when she was broke and I needed a guitar. It was badly damaged in a house move in the early 1990s, and lovingly restored. I restrung it in the early 2000s when I was keen for my (left-handed) son to learn to play, but he never really got into it. And about 2 years ago, I got a request for a guitar from a colleague on a newsgroup, for someone who wanted to learn to play but couldn’t afford to buy a guitar, and I passed it on (because by then I had another one, a gift from my family) – so Nina’s guitar, with its long history, is still going strong.

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The slow grind of the wheels of justice


One night, many years ago when I was still living in Observatory in Cape Town, I woke at about 3 one morning to the unmistakable sound of my car starting up and driving away. I leapt out of bed and threw open the curtains, and sure enough, there was my little red Toyota Corolla, skedaddling down the street.

I immediately phoned the Flying Squad (back in the days when we had one) and explained that my car had been stolen literally minutes before and literally from under my nose. 'We’ll be right there,' they said, and they arrived at 10 the next day.

All that remained by then, 7 hours later, was to give them a statement and get a case number. And to try to work out how I was going to replace the third car in as many years that had been stolen from outside that house (none insured – ironically, I couldn’t afford the premiums).

About a year later I got a phonecall from a police officer in East London. Once he’d established, with very little polite preliminary chit-chat, that I was the owner of a red Toyota Corolla, registration CA-whatever, the conversation went more or less like this:

Officer: You owe us R12 per day for storage in the police compound over 350 days, and if you do not remove the car by this weekend, we will have it removed for you and that charge will be for your account.

Me (gobsmacked): You mean my stolen car is in your police compound? How long has it been there?

Officer (utterly disinterested): 350 days. And after it’s been here a year, it must be removed. You must remove it, or we will have it removed for you and that charge will be for your account.

Me (astounded): 350 days? But my car was stolen about 350 days ago. Do you mean you guys have had it all that time?

Officer (impatient): We have had it for 350 days. After it has been here a year, it must be removed. You must remove it, or we will have it removed for you and that charge will be for your account.

Me (looking around for hidden camera): Give me the exact date the car arrived in your compound and your phone number, and I’ll call you back.

I then went and searched out the signed police statement, checked the date, and confirmed that the car had washed up in the East London police compound exactly one day after it had been stolen from outside my house in Observatory.

I called the officer back.

Me: How long have you guys known that that car belonged to me?

Officer (bored, irritable): We have had your car for 350 days. After it has been here a year, it must be removed. You must remove it, or we will …

Me (tearing at my hair): Yes, yes, I know all that. What I want to know is how long you guys have had my contact information. In other words, did you know, when that car arrived in your compound, that it belonged to me?

Officer (somewhat threatening): Yes. We contacted the local authorities. We have now had the car for 350 days. After it has been here…

Me (scratching at my eyes): Yes, yes, I've got that! But why didn’t you phone me when it arrived there? If you had my contact information, why didn’t you contact me then? Why are you only contacting me now?

Officer (bored, irritable, somewhat threatening): We have had your car for 350 days. After it has been here a year, it must be removed. You must remove it, or we will …

Me (pulling out my toenails): I’ll call you back.

Over the next few days, I put out feelers to friends and acquaintances in the Eastern Cape. Finally, someone agreed to go to the police compound, both to have a look at the car and try to establish what had happened in the 350 days it had been sitting there. The news, when it came a few days later, was (surprise!) not good.

Apparently the car had been found, abandoned, the day after it had been stolen. It had been established immediately, because the car was properly registered, that it was a stolen vehicle and that it belonged to me; and all my contact details had been freely available to the police. The police told my acquaintance, quite unashamedly, that it had been completely intact when they found it. During the following near-year, however, it had been (unseen and unnoticed by any police officers at the compound, naturally) completely stripped. ‘All that’s left, basically, is the shell,’ my contact said. Everything, including the radio-tape and speakers, the steering wheel, all the seats, all the tyres, and even the engine and gearbox, had been scavenged. And now that it was of no use to anyone, least of all me, the police wanted nothing to do with getting rid of the wreck – or, if they did, it was to be ‘for my account’.

I called the officer and the conversation took a decided turn for the exceedingly hostile.

Me: If you’ve known for almost a year that that car belonged to me, why haven’t you called me before now??!

Officer (fingering his gun, I'd imagine): That is not my concern. Your car has been here for 350 days. After it has been here a year…


In the end, the acquaintance organised for a scrap merchant to go and fetch the shell, for which he paid me enough to more or less cover my various phonecalls to the Eastern Cape. I – obviously - declined to pay the East London police for ‘storage fees’, and, after another few antagonistic phone conversations initiated by the increasingly aggressive officer there, and several threats by me to take the case to the media, the subject was dropped.


Some years later, after I’d moved here to the small town of Riebeek Kasteel, I had another theft from my car. In 2001, the 2 front speakers, both crap quality and worth about a packet of Smarties then (and probably just the one Smartie now) were taken one Saturday night. But because theft was very unusual here in those days, I thought it worth reporting to the local constabulary, where I made a statement and got a case number. (By then I knew the drill.)

I never gave it another moment’s thought – if, after all, the police couldn’t return to its owner an entire car, with the benefit of that owner’s name, address and contact details, I clearly had no hope whatsoever of getting my speakers back.

So when a police car pulled up outside my house yesterday, and an officer got out and marched up to my front door, I knew 2 things: 1. I had been bust. And 2. I would be in for a court case, at least, and probably have to serve some time.

Neither was the case. (And I only thought it might be because I watch too much of the crime channel. Honest.) The officer was merely returning my stolen speakers. The conversation went more or less like this.

Officer (after having established who I was): You had a theft out of your vehicle in 2001? I am returning the evidence.

Me (looking – as I often do – for the hidden camera): Seriously? You’re returning speakers that were stolen from me ELEVEN YEARS AGO?

Officer (showing no amusement – or, really, any other emotion – whatsoever): Yes. Please sign here. And here.

Me (in – as you can imagine – near-hysterics): No, really. Come on. Eleven years? Where have they been all that time? Who stole them? Was there a court case?

Officer (pushing clipboard and speakers at me): I cannot comment. I am only returning the evidence. Please sign here. And here.

Me (signing and taking speakers): Well, golly. Who woulda thought?! Amazing. 2001, hey? Eleven years. Hahaha. Not sure what I’m going to do with these but…

Officer (turning on his heel with pointed lack of interest): Thank you and goodbye.

In the future

My very valued (and not only because it was expensive) digital camera was stolen out of my house in December. I fully expect it to be returned, in some astounding way and by some utterly unexpected means (its technology drastically out of date, of course), at some surprising time in the future. Watch this space.

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Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Lazarus hormones

For all you women out there between the ages of about 15 and 50, imagine this: a life free of mood swings; a shopping list devoid of tampons and pads; mornings without having to scrub the blood out of the mattress; never suddenly realising, right in the middle of the award presentation, that you’re leaking; and wearing light-coloured clothes whenever you damn well feel like it.

That, for me, has been the miracle of menopause. The only significant symptom I had prior to its (relatively early) onset was a few years of alarming hot sweats, but even those were perfectly handleable: they gave my friends and kids something to laugh at, and I don’t actually really mind being hot.

So when, on Sunday, some dude came knocking at my door asking for my old gold and silver (because I have a lot of that just, you know, lying around), and I experienced the kind of screaming rage that quite honestly would get most people sectioned, I didn’t think for a moment I was premenstrual. Why would I? I haven’t had a period for well over a year.

Once my heart rate had returned to normal and I’d coaxed all the animals back up from the bottom of the garden, I thought to myself, ‘Gosh, Trace, that was a bit extreme. Poor man!’ I laughed a bit (guiltily) at the memory of the whites of his eyes as he backed away from the front door, hands up in self-defence. Then I forgot about it because I had other things to think about, like the Sunday Times crosswords.

But then I read a story in the paper about, oh, I can’t remember, an abused dog or a foetus left on a rubbish heap or a shack settlement burning to the ground or a family killed in a car accident or one of those other gazillions of dreadful things that happen all around us all the time, and which we can’t invest too much emotion in individually or we’d go stark staring crazy, and I burst into frankly hysterical tears. I sat at the verandah table and sobbed lavishly, causing my animals to once again slink away to places where there were no inexplicable outbursts of inappropriate emotion.

Once I’d mopped up about a litre of snot and hung the newspaper out to dry, I thought to myself, ‘Gosh, Trace, that was a bit extreme! Pull yourself together!’ I laughed a bit (embarrassedly) and thanked god I didn’t have people over for lunch. Then I forgot about it because I had other Sunday-type things to do, like tending of plants and perusals of books and cleanings-out of the tupperware cupboard.

But then I:

• stubbed my baby toe, with eye-squinching, brain-starring agony, on a stool, something I haven’t done in (oh!) about 18 months;

• dropped a single tupperware container five times while just trying to put it on the goddamn kitchen counter;

• couldn’t get the faaahking total of tupperware bottoms and tops to match, even though I went through the whole process of matching them all about eight times, and threw away about a ton of each in the process;

• inadvertently pulled over a pot plant while trying to reposition it to get more sun, spreading black soil all over the living room;

• not only simply dropped a glass, but actually smashed it spectacularly against the fridge door while trying to hold it and extract a bottle of orange juice at the same time; and

• while trying to hang out a load of clean washing, stepped in dogshit, hit my head on the whirligig laundry line, tore a pair of beloved pants and fell over a bloody fucking cat.

‘Gosh!’ I thought to myself, putting a plaster on my toe and my head, sweeping up glass and soil, and apologising to the cat, ‘if I didn’t know better, I’d think I was premenstrual!’

By Sunday evening I’d developed two zits so vivid in hue and so painful in location (outer nostril and inner eyebrow) that I felt I should be either displayed in an art gallery or admitted to an operating theatre. Also: my boobs were sore, my eyes were scratchy, I had a metallic taste in my mouth, and I had such an intense chocolate craving that I sucked the coatings off an open packet of long-abandoned (and rather fluffy) chocolate-covered raisins that some sadistic person had given my kids for Christmas. It took me about 2 hours and I estimate the total amount of chocolate ingested was the equivalent of 2 squares of a Cadbury’s bar. But it was worth it, okay?!

I was – understandably, I think – completely exhausted by Sunday night, and craving sleep. But I couldn’t. I lay awake, brain buzzing, body all angles, boobs aching, legs twitching, arms just all over the bloody place, pillow being damned uncomfortable, duvet bunched up then thrown off then dragged on then fluffed out then…. aaaaarggghghgghg!

And on Monday morning, when my first job of the day was to wash all my bed linen and scrub my mattress (and my second was to hotfoot it to the metropolis of Malmesbury for a stock of tampons and pads), I realised that my hormones had, over a year after apparently dying a dignified death, come back to bite me in the ass. Bastards.

Having had so much time period-free, I must say that it is an absolute amazement to me how many women get through their entire reproductive lives without killing anyone. And if you’re a man, next time you tell that* joke, don’t be surprised if you end up with an axe in your head**.

* Seriously, haven’t you heard it? Okay. Why does it take three premenstrual women to change a lightbulb? Because it just does, okay???!!

** The other joke. A scientific study has proven that women’s taste in men is affected by where they are in their menstrual cycle. When they’re ovulating, they’re likely to be attracted to a man who’s tall and dark, has broad shoulders and a cleft in his chin, and has gentle eyes and sensitive hands. When they’re premenstrual, their ideal man is on his knees on a stack of burning girlie magazines, with an axe in his head and a golf club shoved up his bum.

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Saturday, 18 February 2012

Fabulously beautiful rainbow

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Long-lost friends reunited

I like lots of things about growing older, but one of the very best for me is reconnecting in unexpected ways with friends from long ago.

Although I’m no fan of Facebook – in my opinion, its user interface is rivalled only by BlackBerry for sheer unfriendliness - when I got a message recently from Nina, I whooped so loudly that all the animals ran to the bottom of the garden. ‘Remember me?’ she wrote. How could I forget?!

Me, Terry and Nina on Thursday morning - 26 years on!
After I matriculated I didn’t know what to do with my life, so I enrolled in a 6-month secretarial course at Rosebank Business College in Joburg. I was a fish completely out of water there – the college had been established in 1948 as a finishing school for girls, and it seemed to me that that was still its primary purpose. Most of my fellow pupils wanted to be secretaries, models or housewives, and we had little in common. So by the time Nina slouched into class about halfway through the second month, I was bored, frustrated and lonely.

Nina had had a somewhat spotty school career, and her mother had sent her to Rosebank College primarily to keep her out of mischief. Which just goes to show that, for some people, mischief is where you find it – because Nina rapidly derailed any secretarial ambitions I had (admittedly, very few) by cavalierly not attending any classes and taking me along for the ride.

I was no stranger to bunking, having been quite a keen class-cutter at school, but, unlike at school, Rosebank College had a ‘minimum attendance’ requirement that, if not met, meant you didn’t get your diploma. Since I was paying my own way (by holding down 3 jobs outside of college time), it would have been a big waste of my time and money if I didn’t qualify, but Nina’s fabulous disregard for rules and disdain for authority were irresistible to me. So my attendance dropped rapidly, and one day the principal, Mrs Kemp, called me into her office and informed me, in frosty tones, that if I missed one more class, I wouldn’t qualify for a diploma.

By then, however, the Nina Bug had bitten me badly, and when, one Friday, my brother came back from the army on a weekend pass (those were the days of 2-year conscription for all white South African boys), I didn’t think twice before cutting classes in favour of hanging out with him and some friends. Fortunately for Nina, she wasn’t with us that day – on the way back home, in a summer thunderstorm, we had a catastrophic car accident. I cracked my spine and my brother’s chest was crushed.

We all survived, and the silver lining was that Mrs Kemp felt so sorry for me that she not only overlooked my dismal attendance record, she organised for me to write all my final exams at home, and I graduated with a sterling mark.

Nina didn’t graduate (surprise!) – in fact, she remembers that all the books she’d been given when she arrived at the college were still sealed in their plastic wrap long after she’d left there. What she did manage to do, however, was burn down the flat she shared with another guy – not surprisingly, she was swiftly given her marching orders from there, too.

I moved to Cape Town about a year later, and set up home with two wild boys, Andy and Terry. We first shared a flat above the Coimbra on the corner of Lansdowne Road (the Coimbra was justifiably famous for its amazing chicken pies, and the bakery is still operating today), then we moved to a house in Rondebosch East.

Terry and I in 1985, moving
into our Rondebosch East house.
Terry and I on Thursday morning (posing with the Porsche!)
Although we were all very young (in our early 20s), we were all working – in fact, I met Terry at Albert Moore, a stainless-steel works in Bellville (which, at the time, was under constant threat of being closed down, and at one stage was put under judicial management, but is apparently also still going today), where I was putting my secretarial diploma to use as an admin clerk and he worked in the factory as a fitter-and-turner.

As the only girl in the Rondebosch East household, I fought an uphill battle to maintain some measure of domestic order – Terry remembers that I used to frequently call house meetings and raise issues, and then bossily present solutions, which I would foist on my unwilling housemates. In my defence, I do recall that just keeping enough dishes clean to have a morning cup of tea was a practically impossible task, and of course our house was the ‘party house’ (most of our other friends being either students or still living at home), and Andy and Terry would quite happily have lived in the debris of ongoing all-night jols, while I, well, wouldn’t.

Terry was always the smoothie – he drove a beach buggie and had an endless string of girlfriends. Andy appeared to be the sensible one – perhaps because he had a steady girlfriend, a nurse (who he eventually married), but they had a very volatile relationship (I recall a shoe being thrown through a lounge window late one night…). Andy was, in fact, extremely wicked, and involved me (unwittingly, of course) in many of his bizarre escapades. Without going into details (because I don’t know what the statute of limitations on these things are), he once robbed a restaurant of its entire seafood stock – the restaurant actually belonged to a friend of ours, and I made him return the swag the next day.

Another time, he asked me to go with him into Claremont to buy beer for a party – he asked me to drive the bakkie, which I thought a little odd, but I did it; and then he asked me to wait in the car while he went to buy the beer, which I thought even odder, but I did that too. The next minute, he came running out of the bottle store, lugging a crate of beer, which he hurled into the back of the bakkie before leaping into the passenger seat and screaming, ‘Drive! Drive!’ He had robbed the liquor store.

Once, we all ended up at a guesthouse in Paarl (I can’t remember how or why). In the living room, there were about 5 residents watching TV. Andy, by then many sheets to the wind, casually wandered over, unplugged the TV set and took it out to our car, where he put it on the back seat. Obviously, everyone there asked why he was taking the TV, and he just mumbled something about repairs. (I made him put that back, too.)

Andy also had a rule: we never bought toilet paper. I don’t know why I never questioned this, but instead did what he required: stole a roll of toilet paper whenever the opportunity presented itself (from public toilets, office cloakrooms, restaurants, etc).

I really have no idea how Andy (or any of the rest of us) was never arrested – we must have had the luck of youth on our side.

Nina, who had stayed in Joburg but visited me in Cape Town, also became friends with Andy and Terry (although, inexplicably given what a shutterbug I always was, I don’t have any pics of her from that time).

Our Rondebosch East house broke up (not literally, by some miracle) towards the end of 1986, and we all lost touch. In the 26 years that followed, I got married and moved to Botswana, then moved back to Joburg and then to Cape Town, had 2 children, got divorced and moved to Riebeek Kasteel. Nina got married to her high-school sweetheart, and is still happily married and living in Limpopo; she has 2 sons. Terry got married, had a son, and then got divorced; he still lives in Cape Town.

And on Wednesday evening, for the first time in over a quarter of a century, Nina, Terry and I got together. The most amazing thing was that, although so much time has passed and so much has happened in all our lives, we all feel we’re exactly the same people. Nina is still irrepressibly irreverent and wicked; and Terry is still a smoothie, although he’s swapped the beach buggie for a burgundy Porsche Carrera.

And Terry brought something very special – a bottle of Zonnebloem Cabernet Sauvignon that was bottled the last time we were all together, in 1986!

* Terry is still in contact with Andy, and our next get-together will include him.

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Friday, 10 February 2012

Checkit! A whole new look without the trauma of permanence!

My daughter introduced me to this very entertaining app (is it an app? I use the word as if I know what it means, but I don’t). She showed me this photo of herself and asked if I knew who it was. I experienced a very strange little jolt of recognition, but couldn’t put a name to it. ‘It’s me!’ she said.

The weird sense of déjà vu came clear a few days later when she posted the pic on her Facebook page and tagged me in it, and a very long-ago ex-boyfriend saw it and emailed me, ‘OMG! I’ve just seen a pic of a blonde girl on your Facebook page and it took me back 25 years!’

Because 25 years ago I had short blonde spiky hair. (It wasn’t quite as groomed as this do, but the general feel was the same.)

So I gave myself a virtual makeover and this is what I look like now with short blonde hair. I can’t really see the resemblance between myself and my daughter, but 25 years has been known to wreak havoc make changes.

Go here to give yourself a virtual makeover.

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Missy the cat: big ups, big downs

There’s a saying that goes ‘you’re only as happy as your unhappiest child’, which, as a mother of two, I would largely agree with. (Sometimes, and especially through the teen years, this can be more a case of ‘you’re only as homicidal as your unhappiest child’, but that’s another story.)

If you’re a ‘parent’ to pets, the saying also applies, especially when an animal is unwell. I learnt this when Sara the Wobbly Dog went through months of illness, including epilepsy, constant tremors, loss of weight, difficulty walking – the whole shebang. There was always a portion of my brain that was occupied with Sara and her health – whether and how much she’d eaten that day, what medications she was on, if she’d got through the night without a fit, etc.

Another of our animals is a small tabby/wildcat mix called Artemis – named for the Greek goddess of the hunt, which actually suits her much better than the light and fluffy ‘Missy’, which is what everyone calls her.

Missy came from the Wellington SPCA when she was about 2 months old. From the start, she was a challenge: she refused to eat for several days and it wasn’t until I hand-fed her tiny blocks of mature Cheddar cheese (she turned her nose up at the cheaper varieties) that she finally deigned not to die of starvation. And this food fussiness persisted – while the other 3 cats are happy to eat out of the same bowl, Missy would literally rather starve to death than share. So, every morning, the other cats come in and eat out of one bowl, and Missy waits, staring balefully at me, until I give her a bowlful of fresh food, all for herself.

Even as a kitten, Missy wasn’t playful. A dragged piece of string, which would send the other cats into spirals of excitement, held absolutely no interest for her. And when the other cats tried to play with her, she would turn into a spitting ball of pure fury – they soon learnt to leave her alone (although Evan, a neutered tomcat of good looks but little brain, persists – but I think it’s more that he just likes to irritate her, in big-brother fashion, than actually play with her).

As she grew older, Missy made her dislike of physical contact crystal clear: when picked up and petted, she growled; she put up with being stroked, but with obvious irritation. Weirdly, though, she would also go through periods of apparently genuine affection – rubbing herself up against your ankles, lying happily in your arms, and generally behaving like a normal domestic cat. We knew not to get too comfortable around this, though – it wouldn’t take long before she was back to her sullen, sulky self.

In the small zoo of animals that lives with me, I’ve dealt with various illnesses – Sara’s scorpion sting and its fallout; birdlice in the chickens (which spread to the cats); a cat with an allergy to fleas (when the vet diagnosed this, I laughed; I thought he was joking); a dog that got such bad pancreatitis she almost died; a cat that required a real human dentist do an extraction of a rotten canine and also treat his gums for periodontal disease; the removal of infected dewclaws; repeated re-stitching in a cat that refused to leave its spay wound alone; and so on.

But Missy has always presented with the most puzzling and difficult-to-diagnose problems. A few years ago, she just stopped eating – not even her own personal bowl held any temptation for her, and she lost weight rapidly. She’s a very small cat, so it doesn’t take much hunger-striking for her to start looking skeletal. So off we trundled to the vet (who always greets me with much cheer, and no wonder – I’ve put at least two of his kids through varsity so far), and after a prolonged examination and much ‘hmm’-ing and ‘hah’-ing, he said, ‘Has anything changed in the makeup of your family recently? A death? A divorce?’

‘No,’ I said.

‘Anyone moved in? Moved away?’

‘Oh, yes, my son’s just left home,’ I said.

He nodded knowingly. ‘Well, this cat’s stressed. She’s obviously missing him.’

Really?! I thought. (Bear in mind, this is a cat who seems to simply hate everyone.)

The vet prescribed Rescue Remedy (I’m not making this up) – three drops three times a day, straight down the gullet.

Neither Missy nor I enjoyed medication times – as anyone who’s ever tried to feed a pill to a cat knows, it’s all claws and clamped jaw and then, when you’ve finally got the medicine in, an enraged shake of the head which usually sends the pill skittering across the room and under the fridge. But I was dispensing a liquid, which made things marginally easier, and even though I didn’t believe for one second that it was going to make any difference, I followed the vet’s directions.

And Missy got better. Bizarrely, she soon began to eat again, and within a week or so was visibly putting on weight.

Last year I went to Holland for 10 days. When I got back, I had to endure about a week of all the animals sleeping on my bed – it was as if they suspected I might sneak off again during the night and wanted to make very sure I didn’t. All, that is, except Missy – who not only had visibly lost weight in my absence, but had also developed a nasty scratching habit, to the extent that she started opening wounds all over her head and neck. Remembering that the absence of people in her ‘pack’ upset her, I tried to be as loving to her as I could, but it wasn’t easy, given that she was constantly weeping blood or nasty plasma-looking stuff from her entire upper body.

And so it was back to the vet again. My own dear vet was on holiday and I saw his partner, a very able animal doctor but one without benefit of the knowledge of Missy’s highly strung personality. She wasn’t sure what to make of Missy’s state – looking at a skin sample under a microscope, she ruled out mites and ringworm – and finally suggested, in the absence of anything else that might help, that I just bathe the wounds in an iodine solution twice a day and wait for them to heal.

Let me say this about bathing a cat’s wounds in iodine solution – at least, when you give a cat a pill, you can wrap the animal tightly in a towel and so escape the worse ravages of its claws; but you can’t bathe a cat that’s wrapped up, so twice a day, I had to enlist the help of someone brave and then apply iodine to a spitting, snarling, squirming wildcat. Often, once the session was over, I had several more wounds to bathe in iodine – mine and my helper’s.

Two weeks later, the wounds weren’t only not healing, there were more of them and some were clearly infected. And Missy had added her usual protest to the picture: she’d stopped eating. In desperation, I offered her plenty of treats, including completely outrageous things like poached chicken breast and fresh salmon, and she turned her nose up at all of them.

At this stage, I must be honest: I actually thought of having her put down. It really upset me that this cat was so obviously unhappy, and that my best efforts were having absolutely no effect. But I thought I’d try the vet one more time, and off we went again. (Incidentally, each trip to the vet is 20km in the car each way – accompanied by a cat in a cat basket, yowling as if it’s being skewered with red-hot pokers. It’s quite traumatising.)

The same vet saw Missy again, and this time, after another thorough examination (including the microscope, etc), she asked some probing questions. ‘Is she the oldest cat?’ No, but she’s the only wildcat-mix. ‘Does she play with the other cats?’ Absolutely not. And, most interesting: ‘Does she refuse to eat out of the same bowl as the other cats?’ Yes!

‘Ah,’ she said, ‘every family has one.’ Then she diagnosed depression, gave Missy a huge injection of cortisone and antibiotics, and told me to keep an eye on her over the next few weeks. ‘Bring her back if her wounds aren’t healing,’ she said.

I didn’t have to: the wounds did heal. Not only that, but Missy seemed suddenly to bounce back in the most enthusiastic way. She ate hungrily, often sharing the other cats’ bowl. She began curling up on our laps again, even allowing us to rub her tummy. She wrapped herself around our ankles. She miaowed happily when she came into a room, and allowed herself to be carried around like a little queen. It was as if she was having a belated reaction to all the special treatment I’d tried to give her while she’d been ill.

Today I had reason to visit the vet yet again (de-worming tablets for the entire zoo, this time), and she asked how Missy was doing. ‘It’s completely bizarre,’ I said. ‘She’s a different cat. She’s friendly, loving, affectionate. She’s eating well. She’s not fighting with the other cats…’

‘Well, that’s what happens with this kind of depression,’ the vet said. ‘Big ups, big downs.’

‘You mean she’s … bipolar?’ I asked, fully expecting her to laugh her arse off.

The vet nodded, casually. ‘It happens in some animals. And you’re going to have to keep an eye on her, because the crash will come.’

And I thought a cat being allergic to fleas was ridiculous.

Windows of the soul: Missy, like many tabbies, has the most compelling green eyes. When she’s happy, they sparkle – that’s my sketch of her eyes, above (drawn during one of her 'ups'). When she’s unhappy, they don’t – that’s my friend Oliver’s sketch of her eyes, below. (Over Christmas, while Missy was still on her ‘down’, Oliver was visiting, and he said to me, ‘I don’t know what I’ve done wrong, but one of your cats is just sitting there, glaring at me as if she really, really hates me.’ It was Missy, of course, and Oliver was so freaked out by her that he felt moved to draw her hostile expression.)

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Thursday, 9 February 2012

Smut rules!

Back in 2007 (gosh, time flies when you’re having fun!), I wrote a waspish little post about the sex scenes in Tony Park’s book Zambezi. And I got precisely what I deserved when he replied in an incredibly gracious way (what I deserved was cringing embarrassment – ironically, what I usually get from ghastly and boring sex scenes in books).

In the five years that have passed since, Tony and I have become good friends. He’s also written several more books (both fiction and non-fiction), in one of which, The Delta, a moral-free trollop called Tracey Hawthorne features fairly pornographically.

To put a further twist on my hypocrisy, I’ve also written a sex scene – for the compilation Open – which Tony reviewed with frankly embarrassing delight. (He’s a better person than me – I would’ve taken the opportunity for some carefully worded revenge.)

Tony hasn’t won the Literary Review’s ‘Bad Sex in Fiction’ award, although I do think he deserves to (and for all the right reasons). He is nonetheless garnering notice in the world of soft porn, and this week made it onto Readings’ ‘Dirty Reads’ list – his novel Ivory rubbing naughty bits with the works of Anais Nin, Vladimir Nabokov and Shirley Conran.

Good on yer, Tony, and long may your hero put his finger up your heroine's bum.

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Sister Moon

One of the wonderful things about living away from the city is the clear views above. Because there’s no light pollution, the night skies are often dazzlingly clear; and because there are no tall buildings, the views are panoramic.

It’s not easy to miss a full moon out here – the silvery brilliance makes the landscape glow, the dogs and cats are restless, and if you bed down outside (which I often do in summer because it’s so hot), the ghostly light is likely to keep you awake.

Our valley is also ideally oriented for a full-moon evening – as the sun sets behind the Kasteelberg in the west, the full moon rises over the mountains on the other side of the vast valley. (I don’t know what ‘our’ portion of this very extensive mountain range – part of the Cape Fold mountains – is called; it lies between the Winterhoek and the Hawequas, and I’ve heard it called the Voelvleiberg, after the dam, and the Limietberg.) And because our towns are situated a little up the shoulder of the Kasteelberg, the views are truly spectacular.

Usually the rising moon looks gigantic, but for some reason, Tuesday’s moon was small on the horizon. It was still its usual gorgeous self, though.
Chef BelAir has temporarily traded life in the middle of nowhere for life in the middle of the middle of nowhere; click here for his evocative take on full moon in the bush.

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