Smells are surer than sounds or sights
To make your heart-strings crack—
- Rudyard Kipling, Lichtenberg
I bite into a small, perfectly ripe, imperfectly rounded, soft, furry skinned, orange – really orange - peach.
It is a few days after arriving in Cape Town, settling in, which means organizing my new workspace in my cousin Gillian’s house close to the mountain above the city, beginning to contact friends, and generally getting ready for writing. I am still in awe of the view of the glorious mountain in all its moods from every vantage point that her house and garden presents, when I casually pick up a peach from the fruit bowl on Gill’s kitchen table. In the two-inch thick large flat-ish weathered bowl, four peaches rub up against other fruit: bananas, plums, avocadoes, mangoes, pineapples.
These other fruits are, it must be said, delicious. However they are not that far from the league that can be found elsewhere and so they evoke and provoke little.
Bananas I have eaten in America were perhaps not quite as dense in taste or texture, but if their flavor evokes anything it is probably America where the banana is the most popular fruit.
Plums which drip as I eat them are sweeter and riper, for sure, but while they provoke some memories of a Cape Town childhood, they compete with plums I picked from a tree that grew in the garden of a house in the Catskills, New York that I once shared with South African friends.
Mangoes - well frankly, there is nothing to beat the fleshy, creamy, golden mangoes, large as babies’ heads, that I have eaten in West Africa. Now there’s a mango!
And the little undersized pineapple? No contest with the enormous Abacaxi I encountered in northern Mozambique which women sold from high piles along the side of the road we drove on. They were so heavy and ripe that even before I could cut through their thick, thorny skin to be cored and sliced, juice had oozed and collected in a large puddle on the plate by virtue of their very weight.
It not being Avo season the ones in the fruit bowl hail from Spain or Latin America and are no better, no worse than those I buy in Montclair and leave to ripen in a brown paper bag in a dark kitchen cupboard. And not that much cheaper either.
As for the chunks of watermelon I tasted on a friend’s St. James’ veranda overlooking the vast sapphire sea? Not up to the flavor, color or texture of the height of the season summer watermelons in the US.
But then I pick up a peach, nestling innocently among the other fruit. It is smaller and rounder than the New Jersey peaches that come into season for five or six weeks during the summer, and which I buy in small amounts at the local Saturday farmer’s market. There is a window of what seems like a mere 60 minutes before peaches transform themselves from too hard to too soft to frot. If you don’t eat them at precisely the right moment, they are destined to join the organic scraps heading for the compost heap. If you manage to, they were, I thought, pretty delicious.
Or so I thought before I bit into my first Cape peach.
Like the swelling, cresting and crashing of a wave after a calm, shallow sea I am engulfed.
With this one sensual taste, I am home.
I can’t describe taste. It is way beyond my literary powers. But although recognizable as a peach, it is essence of peach, just as perfume is essence of the flower it is extracted from; just as a dab of perfume amplifies and is absorbed by the weightlessness of air as it ripples outwards until it can fill a whole room when the wearer steps into it, so the taste enters my head and expands there, to flow over my mind and release dormant memories.
I relish it bite by slow bite, until only the pit is left. I help myself to a second. This time I cut it in half and then in quarters, and then eighths removing the pit which leaves behind a deep rose-red creviced imprint in the orange flesh. I bite into each section savoring each one and chewing thoughtfully.
The feel of sun on skin, salt on skin, leaving a white residue, wet sand clinging to feet and ankles and shins which when dry turns crusty and has to be vigorously toweled off. The pinched painful sun burnt shoulders, chests, backs and glowing cheeks. The smell of calamine lotion slathered pink onto sensitive skin, unable to sleep under even a sheet.
Sundays at the beach. The packing of a picnic lunch into a wicker picnic suit case. Roast chicken, boiled eggs, tomatoes, cut up carrots and cucumbers, salt wrapped in squares of grease proof paper twisted at each end, bottles of water that will be too warm to drink, plates and alloy cutlery strapped criss-cross inside the lid of the case. Then placed into the boot of the car with towels and an old table cloth and folding chairs. The drive to Muizenberg. No seat belts, my sister and I in the back seat, perhaps one of us with a friend in our black Citroen with the spare wheel held in place by metal casing the shape of the wheel, driving at 30 or 40 miles per hour. It was a trek.
The buying of watermelons. On Prince George’s Drive, my father pulls over in front of young men selling them at the side of the road. He unfurls his long frame from the car and teases and jokes in his not too fluent Afrikaans, and is teased back. Then he selects one of the large melons from the high dark green pyramid. First he scrapes a spot on the rind. If it marks easily he rests the heavy melon on top of his head, and jerks his hands downwards. If it cracks an inch or less it is deemed ripe enough to buy. If not, it is returned to the pile and another selected. “Try that one, Daddy!” I dance around and insist, delighted when “my” one is chosen. Later, spread out on towels on the beach, my father cuts it with a large bread knife brought along for the purpose and we hold the triangular slices by the rind, and devour the deep red, juicy flesh while trying to shield it from the wind’s determined effort to spoil the pleasure by insinuating fine white sand.
Tea at Kirstenbosch. Scones and apricot jam and thick cream. Milkshakes from synthetic flavoring and coloring. Pale green peppermint my definite favorite. Large lawns to run on. Stone steps to climb amongst Proteas and indigenous bushes up the sides of the mountain towering above us. Lady Ann Barnard’s deep, clear bath shaped like a bird, in amongst different species of ferns and other shade plants, the sound of water trickling into and out of it.
The large sloping lawn outside the house I live in in Mowbray until I turn eight. Rolling down the slopes, arms tucked under chests. Playing catch. Making tents with kitchen chairs upside down and blankets draped over for the roof. Tea carried out to me and friends on a tray by our domestic to drink in cups with saucers in the coziness, cut off from the whole world. Bread and jam cut in triangles. Sometimes Oros orange squash in plastic glasses tinkling with ice.
Playing on these lawns on a sunny Saturday morning with coloured children my age and younger who have come with their father for legal advice from my father. I fill two paper bags with toys on appreciating that they have none, and my six year old arms each grasping a bag I head back to the lawn from my bedroom.
Stopped by my mother. “What are you doing?” “I want to give toys to my friends”. “Absolutely not. Take them back to your room”. Her voice is unsympathetic. I do. All of them. My good deed thwarted. Me crestfallen.
What other city boasts a mountain up to the heavens? Always taking care, mother mountain, as if it could protect us from all things untoward.
But it doesn't.
Suburbs nestled around it. Streets running through the city right up to it. Craggy and rocky, layers of rock, and its flat, flat top. Small cable car miraculously ascending. Clinging to my mother‘s hand, sure it won’t make it. My father’s fear that we wouldn’t was real enough to keep him down below. Windy up there, walking along the paths and smiling at the cute dassies, who look something like prehistoric rabbits. From the top we see the flat, sandy, Cape Flats, inhospitable terrain for those who work in Cape Town and are the source of my privilege. But I am yet to understand this.
Later when older, climbing that mountain, up and up along windy paths, balancing on rocks, but never attempting the really tough, challenging climbs that Cape Town mountain climbers revel in. One memorable time with a cousin leading the way. Only understanding the importance of making sure one’s toe nails are cut when making the long descent, toes jammed up against the front of my shoes, until I finally, painfully reached the bottom with bruised toes and blood seeping out of a big toe.
The peach talks to me of warmth, and sea, and long beaches, and lush flora, and easy living, and sturdy, comfortable houses, kept dustless and shining by domestic workers whose families lived back in the Transkei are looked after by sisters and mothers while they take care of me.
The contrasts dawn on me slowly. My childhood interprets my surroundings through lenses that present it as normal. As much as my parents rail against apartheid and my father bores his advocate friend with 18 hole lectures in Trotskyism during their Wednesday afternoon golf, for me what I see around me as a child, in keeping with South African with what other white children absorb, seems to present life as it is. Not life as it should be.
Who picked the peaches of my childhood and adolescence? Who packed those peaches so that they arrived in stores unbruised? Who could afford to buy them and place them in large bowls on tables in scrubbed and shiny kitchens, in such abundance that a child walking by could grab one without stopping and eat it as she (I) went about her life of privilege and ease.
With each slow dawning moment of understanding of what apartheid means to those who are roped and chained in by it, I feel a wave of shock. It is increasingly emotional and increasingly painful so that anger seethes below my surface and bursts.
Once in New York I will build on my anger and hatred of apartheid and get to know the finer details of how apartheid functions, and how it essentially exists to control a cheap labor force. I will devour banned books. I will meet exiles and connect with the anti-apartheid and anti-colonial struggles. I will begin to channel (but not lose) the emotional response into anti-apartheid and anti-imperialism activism in the United States.
I will begin to channel (but not lose) the emotional response into anti-apartheid and anti-imperialism activism in the United States.
And in so doing I will lose the taste of the Cape peach.
And now after apartheid is no more and I am back in Cape Town, I have found it again.