from Get Lost in Joburg: Ten Ways*
7) Lockup Song
There's no shortcut to Lenasia. Just 20 minutes of freeway from the Diepkloof band room and I'm jammed between Maloka and Mazibuko in the van packed with percussion and brass. The sergeants tell preposterous tales of jumping fences as they capture criminals, zigzagging unscathed through bullets. I suspect they're probing my gullibility. Maybe flirting. In Soweto, who can tell?
The houses we pass are painted in the colours of confectionary: mint, strawberry, toffee, banana; temples and mosques are filigree and gold. Posters adorning lampposts advertise the Hare Krishna summer festival and a wizened guru beams quiet enlightenment.
I've just been appointed to the South African Police Services military band, sweltering in my a lined wool skirt and brass-buttoned jacket. Hard leather shoes punish my toes. We set up the music stands in a courtyard littered with cigarette butts between the charge office and holding cells. Captain Skhosana raises his baton. We tune. Sort of. The trumpets are sharp; the tuba, flat.
The clarinet begins Abide With Me while we wait for the widow. The heat emanating from the tarmac builds under the aluminium cover. My flute slips from perspiration. Buzzing flies alight on my face.
A prostitute drying out in the prisoner's yard hollers between the hymns: "My children need me." She bangs on the metal door. "My children, my children," she wails.
Another prisoner screams, "Shurrup cunt." Amazing Grace. From the charge office, a const able strides over to the cells. He rattles a large bunch of keys, demanding respect for the dead.
Since my appointment to the band Ive been unable to collect my children at the same time every day. If our performance runs late they go to aftercare. Their father, who has custody, told the social worker my lateness distresses them. I hadn't noticed. I said they were always glad to see me. They liked it best when I came to fetch them in uniform. They'd salute me and I'd salute them back. He said they needed routine. I said, "They need their mother." My access is cut to weekends, and Wednesday night supper. The Lord's My Shepherd.
The prostitute starts chanting: "My children need me." Jerusalem, Jerusalem! "My children are alone." She weeps. An hour passes while we wait. Be Still and Know.
Maloka explains the family's lateness. They are rural people, journeying from Qwaqwa. Transport is a problem. The women arrive cloaked in heavy tartan blankets. A small boy wearing new clothes whimpers on his mother's lap. The policeman who is to be buried shot himself in front of his son. The congregation rises to sing Rea Oboka Morena unaccompanied. The reverend begins.
Afterwards we stand together, folding the buckled music stands, using force. He says, "You mustn't take this life so seriously."
Tears again, the unwelcome response to kindness. Maloka, who will yet discharge a bullet into his own temple when he realises he will not recover from the illness that has already claimed his newborn son, pats my shoulder and says, "Easy, girl."
The prostitute, finally, falls silent.
8) The Function Argument
The chapel smells of waxed wood and the milky breath of four hundred children, shuffling along the pews. In my first week as the primary school music teacher I'm still adjusting from the Police Band, resisting the urge to stand at attention for authority figures. I play Make Me a Channel of Your Peace as the students settle down for Mass.
A man swoops toward the piano, startling me with his vigorous eye contact as if issuing instructions. I play on, bewildered. Is he a parent? A high school teacher? Maybe a brother sent to assist me with the unfamiliar liturgy?
He scours the music over my shoulder. My hands, already shaky from sight-reading, begin to prickle. I spin round, smiling a tight acknowledgement. He nods effusively, eager to talk. I whisper, "Later," but he shifts fitfully, too close. I turn again, flapping for space. I lose my place in the hymnbook and flounder, missing the cadence that intersects with the priest's entry.
Afterwards he introduces himself as Ramesh Pillay and accompanies me to my classroom, launching into the Mesopotamians. "They're the ones who studied the mathematical principles of sound, yet it was the Pythagoreans who discovered the numerical ratios in the musical scales."
Is this an original pickup? Where might this be going? I quicken my pace. Outside my classroom the boys kick puffballs from the giant pin oaks in parabolas across the quad. Soon I'll be sneezing. The girls in their yellow dresses flutter like sunbirds. I gesture to the grade threes, needing to dismiss him.
"Particularly the ratios of small integers."
"Could we discuss this later?" I ask.
"All nature consists of harmony arising from numbers. Please," he says, oblivious to the children, "this must be taught."
I promise I will.
"One more thing…" His daughter, Vaneshree, needs a piano teacher.
I give him Tim's number.
He says, "One, two, three, four – the small numbers are the source of all perfection."
A week later Vaneshree arrives with a driver who parks in our driveway and sleeps in the car for the hour. Her tiny fingers seem hollow-boned as a bird's. She pecks at the keyboard, adding another layer of rickety scales and halting studies to the perpetual soundscape in the house. When she tires, her feet swing a bumping counter-rhythm from the piano stool, not reaching the floor.
Ramesh will not hear that she is too young for an hour; that she battles to concentrate. "She must apply her mind," he says when a shorter lesson is proposed. "She needs discipline."
As the year proceeds, his phone calls get longer. "Why can't she play the National Anthem yet? What about exams? Trinity College or Royal Schools? Maybe UNISA" He pencils in additional fingerings on her pieces. Long memos in her homework book query the methodology, advise sonatas. Tim's face falls when the mobile rings at 8 p.m. I pick up the phone and silence the call. When school reopens I ask if Ramesh wants another teacher for his daughter.
"Why on earth?" he asks, bewildered.
Aiming for tact, I mention his apparent dissatisfaction with Tim's approach. He insists he is well pleased; he wants no change. "If a child receives conflicting instructions the learning process is compromised," I say, trying to sound firm and respectful. Is it too late to reconfigure the boundaries?
He sags against the wall, blinking at the reproach. I leave swiftly, struck by the certainty that he is trying desperately not to weep.
On the morning of his funeral, the slow traffic along Louis Botha's decrepit facade is a wretched cortege. Paganini's first violin concerto plays on the car radio. The piercing tones are the lament of the singing dead: horse hair and gut, maple and ebony.
I want to subtract a week from the clock to return to his hospital bed. I want to take Aristotle to his ward, to take him this recording, implore him to redo the algebra, to shake out the logical fallacy. Re-check the variables in the fibrillating vibrato. Find the transcendental numbers in the downstroke of the pizzicato. Calculate the curve of the falling bassoon. Listen to the two-four, the heart of the beat, the truth of small numbers.
The taxis hoot a strident fugue: Damn it, Ramesh, you bought the lie. My face is wet with regret, and I want to subtract another week in order to pluck back my words; to ask him to tell me one more time about the harmony of small numbers.
*Get Lost in Joburg will be published in its entirety in the December issue of Wordgathering.