The Brown Girl on Brymore Avenue
Mérle and I whizzed up and down Brymore Avenue on our roller-skates, caught tadpoles in the stream and ventured into the fields between our homes and the vlei to climb trees and follow insects to earth mounds and wild plants that smelt of liquorice.
On my 6th birthday in 1993, I was gifted with a pink and red BMX. Side by side, my red-haired friend and I would ride to the café to buy sweets and cooldrinks to fuel our adventures. She would buy Bubbaloo bubblegum, not chappies like we did on the farm. It was velvety, and the taste lasted forever. It was also 25c! I could add 5c to that and get three Chappies which, halved, gave me six delightful servings and twelve (hopefully new) facts to learn. Did you know that Chappies Bubblegum was originally produced in Johannesburg in the 1950s and then moved to Swaziland to be closer to the sugar cane plantations that produce the bubble gum’s main ingredient? And – it was not named after that Chipmunk on the packaging, but rather a nickname of the Chapelat sweet company which this simple little confectionery saved from bankruptcy.
Mérle would also buy Fritos and a can of Pine Nut cooldrink. I would get 3 Lekker Liks or an Apple Munchie to suck on our way to the BMX track that the neighbourhood boys had built with their dads. I would eat half a Chappie when we were done and my mouth had warmed up again after the frozen treat, which would otherwise have made the Chappies go hard in my mouth. I couldn’t copy Mérle who rinsed her Bubbaloo gum with an ice-cold Pine Nut. The luxury of good gum, I tell you. Getting snacks with my new friends in Brymore was always a negotiated thrift, but I made it work. Maybe that’s where I picked up my knack of making Rands stretch like rubber bands.
Summers were epic for the kids of Brymore Avenue. We played until the day was worn out. Never indoors. We played tok tokkie two streets away, ran barefoot in the streets, climbed trees in each other’s front yards, and turned driveways into rowdy four-square courts. The Winter of 1993 brought us amazing news. Mérle and I would be going to Sunridge Primary School in 1994 – the same school as Michelle; the older, pretty girl in the street that we emulated and whose friendship we secretly competed for. Winter left fewer days for outdoor bike rides, and fewer hours to swim or catch tadpoles.
As the sun threatened to bring in a cold dusk, Mérle and I were picking lucky beans in her front Garden. We waved at Michelle from across the street as she dragged her hockey stick into the house, fully kitted in her sports uniform. Ons trek ook so aan, wil jy my uitrusting sien? Said Marlize and jumped up to sprint inside her ‘house’. My new Euro-African friends referred to their homes as their houses – as if they were assured that they had a say in that house and it will one day be theirs. I later learned that they were. But then they grew up and never really live there with their parents, so what was all that claiming about, then? That confused me forever. I am an only child, the fact that I will one day inherit all that belongs to my mother is in black and white, but I would never dare refer to my mother’s house as indlu yam! As if willing her a premature death. Most of my unmarried Xhosa friends on the farm still live at home.
I lined my lucky beans in a neat row in my neon green wallet so that they wouldn’t create a bulge then pressed the valcro down to secure my coral totems of luck. Mérle came back to the tree looking just about as glum as the sky which had quickly gathered up a shield of clouds. She looked puzzled, and stood there quizzing my face and then opened her mouth and said “I can’t show you my uniform. My mommy says you can’t come into the house because you’re brown”. I think we both shrugged. A united casting off of her uncertainty and the sting of bigotry that poked my big brown eyes and ran hot down my brown cheeks. We waved with a casual ‘totsiens’; the first Afrikaans word she taught me. I like it; it’s pitchy syllables sound more cheerful and less final than goodbye.
I crossed the curve in the road that joined our corner homes and brushed some sour berries off the bush we often used as a secret portal from our yards into the veld. We weren’t allowed in there but we went anyway, shielded from our guardians’ sights by concrete slab walls, ironing, steamy pressure cookers and the laborious shining of brass. Her nanny and my mother couldn’t keep an eye on us all the time; they were too busy cleaning their employers’ houses.