Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Two very different Christmas Eve's...

Christmas Eve, and at 4:03pm, the sky is the bruised colour somewhere between lilac and grey. Complete darkness will be here in just moments. Not so in Cape Town, where my folks (their wedding anniversary!) are probably parking on the road lining the boisterous Bantry Bay sea - above which is a little amble up some sunbleached stairs to the renovated post-war apartment where my sister, Julie and her husband James live their glamourous Cape Town lives (of which I am obviously and unashamedly jealous!) where a typical evening can include sundowners on Clifton beach, or a long, languid evening out at one of many divine Cape Town restaurants where their laughter is coloured in shades of merlot, shiraz and ruby pinotage. Julie has her studio at home - she is undoubtedly one of South Africa's up and coming jewellers: owner and designer for her own range/brand : see
In recent months her work has been featured in fashion in no less than the likes of Marie Claire! Most recently, she herself was showcased alongside a few other jewellers - but she definitely is the shining star among them all with her incredibly unique style and creative vision -- and you can see for yourself that I'm not just a baised older sister when you look at her work! And darling James, my brother-in-law from Hull, has his own architectural firm in town - doing fancy, avant-garde work for glamourous German clients with his mad Swiss business partner, Jan. Anyway - I'm blabbing.
Their plans for tonight's Christmas Eve celebration include, like we did last year, chilled champagne and bowls of olives, while on the braai/BBQ fresh king prawns and sizzling rectangles of halloumi sizzle to the sound of James and my dad yacking away like two old women. Inside, Julie will be ensuring the bubbly is constantly topped up, inbetween getting a big pot of shining, black mussels ready for cooking. Last year, she did them Thai-style... Undoubtedly the music will be laid-back Miles Davis or vintage Irakere!
Here, Gary and Craig are sharing the sofa watching absolute crap on TV, and I'm still in my pyjamas having suffered all day long from some sort of pregnancy induced ennui... Supper is Gary's version of their mom's divine, lasagna-like pasta - and more mulled wine. We've had a serious discussion about tomorrow's plans: the unanimous decision is to cook and drink all day long, finally eating at about 4pm. (At least we'll have enough Christmas pudding: After I moaned at Craig's measly purchase of the piddliest little Christmas cake I've ever seen, we now have THREE of them awaiting indiscriminate consumption - along with three tubs of cream!) Gary's spoiling us with a juicy leg of lamb stuffed with brandy-bathed dates, rosemary and garlic! Ooh la la! I'll rustle up modern versions of carrots and the very British brusselsprouts - as well as peeling a couple of potatoes for roasting.

A glass of mulled wine, and I'm now ready to settle into an evening that will no doubt be like the rest of the week's evenings: mindless TV, some quilting, a long bath and probably another early night for me and the growing little lady in my tum.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Winter Wonderland!

Being pregnant has it's benefits, granted: such as waking up at 10.30am, rolling languidly over and spotting a pack of chocolate digestive biscuits, much the way a lioness will spot an unawares little bokkie in the distance - and going in for the kill, not an eyebrow is raised because it is 'natural'. (Craig did laugh a little incredulously, though, at the apparently serious look of intent as I shimmied free another biscuit from the pack!) Three chocolate McVities later, and a smallish bowl of fruit salad, it's time to begin the day with some painfully ached-for writing!

With Christmas round the corner, I feel I should write about how it feels to be a Soutie away from that Christmas braai, lazy afternoon swim and your precious family - but there's so much else that's happened while I've been 'away' working, that I simply have to keep you fully up to date!

The first thing relates to (please don't yawn - I promise it's exciting!) The Weather, while the second is about Putting In Petrol.

Our dear little Fiat Punto, in it's faded red, somewhat dinged glory, remains a faithful car in most weather conditions, though it's given us a little bit of grief these last few weeks when the temperatures have plummeted to the Minus Zone. In a desperate rush one morning on our way to work, BOTH our doors were frozen shut!! No amount of jostling or jiggling could budge the door apart from it's icy clasp! Beginning to feel the ice eating through the soles of my little leather pumps (ignorantly minus stockings or pantihose) I couldn't keep the whine out of my voice as I told Craig to try the boot! It popped open without a fuss, and Craig climbed through the back, kicking the doors open like a madman - reminding me simultaneously of a Rescue 911 hero and a giant trapped spider, all legs, arms and elbows in his smart, dark suit! Needless to say, I made a determined detour on the way home that evening past Tesco to buy that marvellous, though toxic, British invention: de-icing spray. Quite cheap at under 2 quid for each item in the range, I opted for the more powerful looking aerosol can (sorry, Mr Ozone), imagining the bliss of aiming a powerful squirt between the car door and it's clinging frame - instead of having to witness the dramatics of Craig cursing and kicking again!

It seems as if the main roads and highways get salted/gritted much more efficiently than these quiet back roads that wend their serpentine way between villages - i.e. the roads we travel on between home, the village of Spratton where Craig's school is and Kettering - where my school is. Generally, by the time we're on the roads, there's been enough traffic for the ice to have been melted (tyre friction). BUT: the particular little-used byway that snakes off to the side of the main road through Spratton is a nasty little trap of higgeldy-piggeldy parked cars and ice in all it's frightening forms: from smooth, shiny black ice that pretends to be a puddle to the caked-up white frosting that is hideously perilous despite the fact that it looks so, so beguilingly pretty: like icing sugar on a chocolate cake. Craig safely deposited at Spratton Hall, Radio 1 pumping through tinny speakers, lipgloss reapplied after the goodbye kisses, I mentally prepared myself to get to school a) on time and b) in one piece. However, when this pretty cake-frosting decides to nail you, you forget everything you know you should do - like pump your brakes in and out etc etc etc etc etc...................... Driving a little absently round the corner, I spotted the warm glow of approaching headlights on the white, fluffy (NOT) duvet of the road - and, as I always do (such a conscientious South African driver!) I begin to slow down so I can pull behind the car parked not so much on the side of the road, as almost in middle of it! HOWEVER. It doesn't go AT ALL to plan, and the pretty white frosting carries me like a skater on ice faaaaar too close to this badly parked car than I'd have liked. The Fiat's unsure bum does a tango across the ice, ignoring the fact that my foot is on the brake and my heart is pleadingly pumping out a hundred prayers for mercy! Thankfully, I glide to an ungraceful stop a metre or so from the backside of said badly parked car - and the oncoming car flashes their lights compassionately at me - that they will wait for me! (Fact: English drivers are generally a fantastically polite and sensible bunch - excluding 90% of lorry drivers and the young yobs in their souped up little jalopies.)

When I lived in West Berkshire and Hampshire, the winters were noticeably much more mild than the weather we've experienced up here in the East Midlands. Even the wind patterns are different up here - it is wild and obstreperous, beating the trees and moaning like a ravenous wolf (yip - been spending too much time teaching the kids personification and metaphors at school maybe?!) But the biggest surprise was driving past the always beautiful, open expanse of Pitsford the other morning, where the rolling farms and bristling hedges shimmered the purest, softest white (taking my breath away) - and the lake was almost entirely frozen over. A comparison escapes me - it is only something I've seen in the movies, or imagined what a true Northern Hemisphere winter must be like. But where the fragile sheets of ice lay flat and matte upon the waters, time seemed to stand still. Rippling and glossy water broke the heavy hush of the ice in large, liquid fingers - as though it were playing with it, trying to dismantle it, piece by tenuous piece. A winter jigsaw puzzle. (I could never forget this.)

Phew. Lastly - on a more amusing note, I'd like to begin a mini-discussion about our South African Culture of Petrol Attendants & Grocery Packers. Whenever I pack my groceries, it is sure to slip out that in South Africa, we have 'people' to do it for us as 'it creates employment'. The response? A look of 'you lazy white, racist South African' expelled in varying degrees of malice, from the most mild glint in the English eye to the bulging shock of horror! Maybe I should have already learned my lesson by now - and should keep it to myself? But a wicked little part of me enjoys the reaction - because, I think, it reminds me that I could never really NOT be a South African; that the talking about home as often as it slips out is what keeps me connected, there. The same can be said for our lack of experience in putting in petrol. Before I venture into this little story, please leave your own stories in the COMMENTS section below -- and hopefully it won't be another long week before I can tell you my story.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

OK, so I lied. But REALLY, I didn't mean to! HONEST! It's just that I was swept away (again) on a tidal wave of exhaustion. Conclusion: when they say you should go on maternity leave from 11 weeks before your due date: do it. Do not even bother to dither about the issue. It is not even worth a minute's contemplation. And if the idea does happen to pop into your hormone befuddled head, drop me a line - and I shall remind you of exactly why you should rather be at home resting, daydreaming about your little one, and getting their nursery (and your house!) ready instead. Comprende?

School this week has been no less traumatic and frightening than the week before... I witnessed a teacher being kicked, and I, myself, was violently sworn at, shouted at, screamed at and threatened physically. On a brighter note, yesterday I was showered in little tokens of love and gratitude - a choc-chip biscuit at lunchtime, a packet of Doritos, a handmade pink plastic beaded bangle of stars, butterflies and hearts, a letter signed by a bunch of little 10 year old girls, and - at the end of the day, a Siberian tiger keyring.
All the kids had rushed out to their weekend in the darkening Friday frost, while I gathered my coat, scarf and other general 'stuff' together, dreaming about getting home before it was completely pitch black outside (i.e. before 5pm), a long bath --- the classroom door suddenly exploded open, with little redheaded Phillip breathless and pink cheeked, pale green eyes glittering.

"Hey Phil, shouldn't you be on your way home?"

"Miss Roberts, look here!" And from his pockets which I know from many prior warnings and idle threats contain various pens, football cards and grimy red rubber bands gleaned from the street where a careless postman has left them in his hurried wake, he proudly extracts a keyring. A square, perspex-encased photo of a blue-eyed, white Siberian tiger...

"Oh wow, Phillip! What an incredible tiger! It's a Siberian tiger - it comes from a very cold, snowy place. Not like the yellow tigers you get in India where it's really hot." He's persistently silent, saying nothing at all while I run out of things to say about it.

"Is it for me, Phillip?" (I don't know what else to say.)

"Yes! It was two for 1.50 - and I got myself this Man U one!" I try to give him a big cuddle of a hug (something we're not actually allowed to do at all at school - but which we all do anyway!) He doesn't so much fall into my arms as stand like a stiff little embarrassed soldier - and yet I can almost hear his precious little heart almost explode with joy at being so appreciated. You see, he comes from SUCH a rough home where he is one of many children - most of them not even sharing the same father, a hard, gaunt mother who looks as though no-one has ever said a kind word to her and hangs her head in heavy, perpetual hopelessness.
I release Phillip from my maybe claustrophobic hug, and he darts away for a second so that I'm about to say goodbye to him for the second time - but then he hovers a little closer and says, "Miss Roberts, the reason I bought this for you is because you are the best teacher I have ever had. And because you are always kind and nice to me." His little pale, freckled face works hard to get all of this out of his heart which I sense usually stays fiercely locked up. If any other teacher shouts at him (he is a naughty little bugger - but mostly because he's bored, I think) he reacts extremely violently, shouting, glowing red-hot - chairs get flung across the room, cupboards get kicked. All it takes from me is one raised eyebrow and he's back in his seat, trying to refocus. And I think this is the key to working with these broken children: they're craving the right kind of attention. That is, consistent, loving, firm and mutually respectful... But so often it seems a futile mission trying to turn these hearts from broken to fixed. (And I realise I suffer quite badly from the Saviour Complex...)

I think Phillip's about to leave, but as his hand reaches the door, he turns around - and again I see how internally his heart is churning like an intricate machine, about to overheat. I say nothing - wait for him to speak.

"I've decided, Miss Roberts."

"What about, Phillip?"

"I've decided I'm going to become a designer. A designer of pictures."

And now I want to run up to him, and hold him forever - take him home with me and give him everything he might ever need. But I know this is not right - that I need to step back from my own overworking heart even though it feels like I'm squeezing all the blood out of it so that it gasps from pain and surprised anguish. (Melodramatic but more true than most things I've ever felt.)
A few days ago, I'd spent an entire morning treating the class to a big art class in which we explored trees - their shapes, personalities, textures and colours. I laid out all the graphite, charcoal, pastels and paint I could find - demonstrating all the exciting possibilities and variations inherent in these simple materials. Every child responded as a child should - even another problematic redhead I've managed to forge a relationship with -- except for Phillip, which astounded me because he is ALWAYS drawing - in Maths, in English, during breaktime. His copper mop shone from above the cave of his arms he'd buried his face in - and nothing I said could coax him out of what looked like terrible fright.
I took him outside with me, making sure he had his beloved blue rollerball pen and his sheet of paper, on which hid two abandoned attempts at trees. On the itchy, nylon carpet, our back to the pink wall padded with a hundred puffy winter coats, I asked him about the trees he'd begun to draw. Repeatedly, he moaned and grumbled, "I just can't draw trees!"

"But, Phillip, you can draw huge galactic wars between monsters and men! You can draw intricate machines for your monster armies! If you can draw THAT you can draw a tree!" His body language said he didn't believe me.

Grabbing his piece of paper, I asked if I could borrow his pen and began to draw a very designed, geometric tree, replete with compartments for birds instead of the usual nest. Next to it, the typical tree I draw looked downright boring and predictable in comparison.

"Which one is your favourite tree, Phillip?" A grubby little finger immediately shot out towards the designed tree. "Tell me why you like it the most."

"Because it's cool."

"But why is it 'cool'?"

"The shapes you used. And that line of dots. That little machine-bird you drew."

We chatted about the difference between artists who work in a realistic way, copying directly from life - and artists who have a whole universe tucked away inside their heads from which they draw. How miraculous and amazing it is if you have an imagination and don't have to copy what's out there! I also explained the difference between designers and artists who draw from life. After thinking about this for awhile, he blurted, "But I can only draw monsters!"

"Well then, why don't you design a monster tree?" He just looked at me, his jaw unstuck and his eyes not quite sure if I was being serious or sarcastic. At last it dawned on him that I was being very serious indeed - and straightaway he bent down over his piece of paper and began doodling and sketching what turned out to be a brilliantly conceptualised and executed piece of art!
The very BEST part about it all, was that what had happened between us had made such a deep impression on him, that he'd actually had a huge ideological shift and made a brand new life-decision - where before he'd assumed he'd simply become a builder like all of his school buddies and their dads...

So, in the end, not a very 'Soutpiel' issue, but I sometimes can't help allowing myself to be seduced by tangents and sidetracks! Originally I was going to write about my experience at the local petrol station - maybe later today or tomorrow? At least now I know not to make any empty promises ;)