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Here In Africa: And Then There Was Tresor...

Barbara Durlacher tells the inspiring story of a young man who was determined to be a writer.

The ladies of the Tuesday writers group gathered at Zara’s flat as usual, promptly at 12 noon. Situated in one of those cool and leafy jacaranda-lined avenues of upper Houghton, the weekly meeting had been a comfortable ritual for several years and they knew one another well. Over the years, they’d written stories about grand-children and parents, fondly recalled holidays of childhood and lovingly remembered pets. Some of them had ventured into long, rambling tales never to be finished, about lost loves, childhood angst and other troubles.

At one time, the group had nearly fallen into that most perilous trap of all, and nearly became a forum for the discussion of real and imagined woes, a sort of literary Agony Auntie, but fortunately Zara’s skills at managing this disparate collection of ageing females had swiftly eliminated any such ideas, and she gathered up the reins more firmly and quickly brought everyone back into line before any lasting harm was done. What she wanted was for the group to stick firmly to their main purpose, which was for them to become creative writers.

But this Tuesday was different. A timid knock on the door, which, when opened, revealed a young black man who explained in broken English that he’d heard of the group and wished to join. His informant had told him that Zara was a well-known writing teacher and he wanted to be a writer himself. Uneasily, he was accepted and the ladies shifted around to the table to make space and wondered if this was really a good idea. First and foremost: was it SAFE?

“And where are you from?” one of the more confident ones enquired in a voice which tried hard not to carry shades of the patronizing “White Meddem” speaking to the lowly black, who now, with the “new dispensation” had the temerity to enter a wealthy white home. To cap it all now, horror of all horrors, he’d taken a seat at the table, and seemed intent on making himself at home.

Opening a shabby school bag he took out an even less promising cotton pencil bag and extracted a stub of pencil and a grubby koki pen, a short plastic ruler and a rubber. Then, having settled himself, he looked up and smiled and suddenly the tense atmosphere relaxed.

“The DRC Mem,” he replied. “My brother and I made our way here all alone. It took us two years. We travelled partly on foot, crawling through barbed-wire fences at the borders when the guard’s backs were turned, and begging for lifts on the road from passing motorists. It was hard. We were frightened, hungry and very tired. Also, we were afraid of the foreign people and the wild animals,” and with this simple explanation, he dropped his eyes to the tools of his trade, and waited to begin work.

“Why are you coming to these classes?” another woman queried, wondering how he would spend this time while he was with them.

“I want to write film scripts,” came the surprising reply. In fact, his answer was so unexpected that all questioning ceased. Everyone present decided such an unlikely ambition would never be fulfilled, and after shuffling their papers and not wanting to seem too curious, one by one the ladies read out what they had written.

As they read they were careful not to make eye-contact in case the young man should interpret it as a signal to play on the all-too-familiar White guilt and expect handouts of money, clothes and food, but once the moment passed the morning continued its pleasant course. Refusing offers of coffee, tea or biscuits, when it came to his turn, the young man read his latest creation in a barely audible voice with a heavy French accent and an exceptionally poor grasp of English. Inwardly they sighed; knowing that any time spent trying to help or encourage him would be wasted effort.

Yet week after week there he was, always eager and ready for the twelve o’clock gathering, passing the time while he waited for the others by chatting with the friendly guard who watched the cars in the quiet street while the ladies enjoyed themselves. His wardrobe never varied and he was always dressed in the same all-purpose bomber jacket and thin cotton trousers. Every week the shabby school bag was ceremonially opened to extract the cotton pencil bag with the worn stubs of pencil and the dry koki pens. Then, as the months passed he appeared bare-footed, even in the coldest weather.

“Don’t you have any shoes?” one of the more direct women asked one day, to which she received the reply “No money to buy shoes, Miss” which of course caused instant unease and the realization of her lack of wisdom in posing the question unless she was prepared to fund the purchase of a new pair.

The young man’s attitude was that it was nothing to fuss about; and as he was just another of the thousands of refugees from other parts of Africa who have flocked into eGoli (Johannesburg) hoping that some of the good fortune would rub off onto their receptive shoulders and gather them to its breast, his audience were content to leave it at that and accept no further responsibility.

Now and again, one of the ladies would make a short detour and give him a lift home, but like all whites savvy about life in the great metropolis, none of them would dream of crossing the invisible boundary between lukewarm friendship and familiarity. None ventured further into the black ghetto in which the young man lived, the Soweto of the North in Yeoville and their safe “white” suburbs a few streets away.

Months passed, and one by one the ladies dropped out. Unlikely reasons were cited, none credible. Soon, only the young man and one other member were attending the Tuesday classes. Over the months, this member had taken upon herself the task of typing up the young man’s work, and did what she could to correct the most obvious errors without changing the sense of his stories. Grammar, punctuation and spelling all received attention, but there was little chance of improvement. The quality of his writing was dreadful.

Then, Zara’s son in Canada issued an ultimatum that unless his mother joined him in Vancouver she would lose her residential status. With no alternative, she reluctantly did as she was told.

“My son says that unless I join him, he can’t be expected to fly to South Africa every time I am ill, or there’s a crisis,” she confided.

“And besides, with only you in the class, it looks as if we’re stuck with him. And the thing is, he hasn’t made any progress since he joined us.

‘His writing is hopeless and he doesn’t know how to express himself. I feel I’ll be saddled with him for the rest of my life if I don’t leave now. I don’t feel bad about leaving him. It’s obvious he’ll never improve.”

Sadly they parted company, and seven pleasant years of semi-serious ‘learning to become a writer’ ended.

Months later the phone rang.

“Miss, this is Tresor.”

Her heart sank. Oh dear, did this mean a resumption of the former begging relationship? But a huge surprise was to follow.

“I want to invite you to the casting of my movie script. I’ve finished college. I got my Diploma and my script has been accepted. We start casting on Monday. Will you come?”

Unable to accept due to a doctor’s appointment, she contacted all those who had known him and as many as could make it, agreed to be there.

An unlikely thorn, with a bud about to flower. Would it burst into bloom?


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