Tatamkhulu Afrika is a novelist and short story writer. He has won many awards for his work, including the 2000 Sanlam Award for his collection Mad Old Man Under the Morning Star (Snailpress). It was published to commemorate his 80th birthday. He lives in Cape Town.


Trees’ dreadlocks tossing
in the flat wind,
and you somewhere there
in all that brightness:
the sun shadowless on tarmac,
summer’s dresses flared.
I did not see you straightaway:
standing looking out
from the high-rise office window,
more distant movement drew me:
the sea quivering in the hot light,
fluttering yacht sails.
Tense, sustained, your stare at last
stirred to life in me
an ancient, animal
Fidgety as this fly I slap at,
I looked down.
Slowly your face formed
in the shattering leaf-shade.
You were standing under a tree,
head tilted upwards,
motionless as the solid
trunk on which you leaned.
Satyr in the leaves, you looked
at me with such a curious
Locked with mine, your eyes
did not falter, swerve:
I was the lesser.
At last my glance slid
past you; black as your own shadow,
you broke cover,
left me standing here as apes are
when too long stared at
in their cage.
Pas de Quatre

He loves Spain:
when he speaks of it I hear
guitars, smell sun.
She paints,
hides the paintings in her room,
shows me some.
My breath stills
at the tenderness of their line,
awareness of the eyes,
mouths that close
upon a silenced tongue.
She shuts the door, firmly, when we leave,
shows me her garden,
hemmed by its high
old hedges and greying boards.
I found her watering it
in the silence before the sun.
it is as Eden might have been.
She knows each flower,
touches them with the tenderness her paintings hold,
loves the small green oranges she cups
like a maleness in her palms.
Birds swarm
round the feeder under the vines,
unperturbed and unappeased.
A dove flaps,
clumsily, in the stone
bath for smaller wings.
She speaks of it,
intimately, as of kin.
He is an old man,
but their love transcends
the brittleness of bone,
moves me, considerately, aside
for the moments they must share.
clocks tick suddenly loud:
stockinged feet on the settee,
spectacles askew,
reading liberation poetry or prose,
looking hardly half
her fifty or so years,
he sunken in the sham
comas of the old.
Later, she will tap,
delicately, on my door,
call ‘Tea!’
in a little-girl-
and I’ll go out to home-baked scones,
barely usable spoons,
cups and plates with patterns from an age
time has leached
of all save its lavender and lies,
and he’ll re-engage me in reminiscences of a war
in which, at last, we meet,
whose ashes stir
with a sad and pointless fire as we blow.
And all the while
I’ll be knowing she’s about,
vast and black
as the township on the hill,
even when she’s still,
turning round and round
like a restless, lonely hound
in the taut,
dark dossdown of my mind.
I do not know her name:
was not given it:
could only hold her hand till she sensed
I did not see her as a table or a chair.
Sometimes I’d smile,
passing through the kitchen to my room.
She’d smile back but her eyes
stayed troubled as though we played
some not quite reputable game.
I sit here eating and I gag,
inwardly, on the blood-
slicked gristle of my heart.
conserve soaks
into my scone’s split halves.
My hand trembles as I take
up my cup, laugh
at witticisms barely heard.
Other side the wall,
alone in the silence we left her to,
she holds her mug in slow,
work-riven hands.
Black as space, her eyes
say nothing: say all.
She watches us through the wall.
Between me and them,
the shining table widens till I blink
away the imminence of my fall.
Their faces rush
back at me, soft with love.
But it is their hands I see:
when next I take them will I feel
the sharpness of their bones?
The woman chinks
down her mug,
moves around under my skin.
They ask me if I am well.

Left alone, he’d lean
long hours on a pick or spade,
the garden’s chronic ruin, then hack
at the earth as though he hated it,
Indian’s step sounding near.
A Tswana strayed
too far down south, he
spoke Xhosa oddly, raised
hackles with his as odd
a stopping short of black,
multiple other alien traits.
Seamed and sealed
of face as some old San,
he was yet
not even half my age,
could have been
a son’s son, not
the son for whom the grieving’s done
in that time beyond my tears.
Horny, young-
old fingers, slow
as a dungbeetle rolling dung,
would stuff a pipe with a dead
generation’s Boxer from a bag,
then turn to delicately stitch
up rents in his shirt or pants,
threading the needle at a single thrust,
sometimes doing that for me,
small laugh grumbling in his throat,
my one eye long since turned to stone.
They gave him a palliasse,
blankets enough –
after all, as the Indian said,
of what use was he to them dead? –
even gave him a paraffin lamp,
refuels thrown in if not too often sought,
none afraid that he would set
anything other than himself alight,
the cellar in which he slept –
and crept about in with back bent,
it being only half his height –
holding only him,
his shadow, huge
on the suffocating cement,
a rat that throve on rattex, watched
him with not unkindly eyes,
mutant cockroach that,
long as his thumb, dragged
its pregnant slickness round,
twitching antennae seeming to understand.
I spoke to him once about his rights,
was derailed when the Indian’s wife yelled
for him to fetch his lunch and he came back
with a cracked plate of wanly warmed-
over beans in tomato sauce,
hunk of sold-by bread
black and meanly-sweetened coffee in a mug,
began to eat, then, with peasant relish while
I tried again: and paused again
as he whistled up
a passing black prostitute,
he being a randy man but not allowed
to copulate in the cellar though
the Indian’s wife made sure all heard
of her own bed’s being shared.
Replete, he wiped
the plate with the last of the bread,
his mouth with the back of his hand,
agreed the Indian was a shit but
he must go now to clean the yard though
it was his day off and I gave up
on him, listening to him rush
to open the garage door when the Indian came
back with the car, leaning on the horn,
chiding him for being still too slow,
voice spiritless with a power too tamely gained.
Suddenly as he had come,
he left,
saying no word,
the Indian shrugging when I asked,
sloe eyes querying why I did.
I missed him, then,
found that strange,
he having needed me,
not the other way around,
joyously yelping ‘Pa!’ each time I passed
the cellar door, his leaning on a spade,
sitting on the bowl of the toilet we shared,
many another place and time until
it seemed I walked
through an endless ambuscade
of something very much like love although
I was very far from that, knowing well
what he never would:
that he was mutton on the prowl,
sick beast cropping shit
in even the abattoir’s shade,
only deliverance the blade.

Yesterday comes up the street
in tight
boilings of bodies, high-
stepping feet.
Or does it not?
Old slogans on old staffs
name new names, demonise
bureaucrats and pimps,
passionless twits,
nobodies I have yet to meet.
Where, now, yesterday’s
red-blooded shits, hands’
sacramental crunch
of genitals, cock’s devout
deflowering of the arse?
Where now the hells
of our hatreds, bleak
howlings of the hearts, genuine red
glare of the stare,
tears to crumble the cold stone?
Hungering, I search
for the faces not there, move
my feet in a mating with the beat
of the old songs that break the heart,
but I am old with the millennia
of my years, and he laughs
at the old,
odd alien in my flesh,
shows me how.
What shall I say?
That I have toyi-toyied
from Cape Town to Katlehong and back,
shaken Mandela’s hand,
wept for Chris Hani through a long night,
shared with him a rage?
My feet slow and he looks
at me with a small contempt, is back
in his own small brotherhood
of the dying that is time, and I stand,
grinning like a fool to hide my pain,
watching the mock coffin pass,
black hands juggling it,
in it my heart.

I would walk along the riverbank
when the moon lay quietly on the water,
and the street,
dwindling under cypresses,
It was then I’d see
a woman at a window:
a calm, pale woman,
face lit
by a fire’s embers,
the whole of her,
She was a woman neutered,
passionless as the moon’s light,
evoking nothing, yet
I could not pass along the riverbank
without seeing her,
standing staring,
eyes turned inwards into silence.

And in the days
of my wilder ways,
having this rage in me,
I’d sit on public benches
with birds and beggars,
or seek the sidestreets’ spastic places
where rainbow-coloured strobe lights flickered
on driven devils dancing.
Always then,
some never sober stranger sitting
next to me, not speaking,
paler even than the woman,
eyes as wide,
but no clam in them,
no reasoned, contemplative
agony of angels,
just the glittering,
empty watchfulness of seagulls,
a staring into bloodyings.

I no longer walk along the riverbank,
dance in dead ends,
where shapes of silence seek me,
alien, yet knowing.
I am touching seventy now and hear
death’s dragonsbreath
in even the boiling of a kettle.
I used to sit in the kitchen once,
staring at the dead heater and the ‘Free Mandela’ poster,
but now I sit mostly in the bedroom,
staring at the ‘Hamba Kahle or Go Softly
this or that dead comrade’.
That is because someone else is sitting in the kitchen now,
staring at the dead heater and the ‘Free Mandela’ poster.
I do not know him, nor he me,
he having yet to look around
when I make myself a cup of tea,
or toy with the dogfood,
‘how can I any longer pay
for the luxury of this loving?’.

It is not his not speaking that worries me,
but his seeming to know what I will do before I do it;
like my looking down to check the cockroach I can never catch,
scuttling about the floor like an electronic button,
that reaching out of mine for the dogfood,
my eyes’ straying to the rattex,
the swift sweep of my thoughts away...
Who is this man?
Our landlady never introduced us.
Do we still have a landlady?
When I ask him, he does not answer:
just stares ahead with the dumb,
desolate distraction
that reminds me of all the world’s loneliness,
a cockroach struggling a million years to be a cockroach,
rank grass growing in old power-stations,
old people remembering the unremembering,
reaching out, then, to the packet
with the dead beasts’ blood on it
(‘keep away from house-pets and little children’),
wading into the last,
leaden nightfall...circling...
back into my small kitchen,
drawn by the old life’s beckoning harbour-lights:
murder, hemlock and holiness...