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Louis Greenberg

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

John

My wife and I moved out of a warm and peri-urban Parktown flat and into our Kensington house a few years ago. Suddenly we were faced with suburban life: the barking dogs cruising around in packs, plants that grew on the house, neighbours tuning cars and hosting discos in the street. And then there was John.

It must have been in the first couple of weeks when we were woken on a Sunday morning by a hoarse, repeated “missus! missus!” called from the gate. Those were the days when we liked to sleep until 10 or 11; we thought if we ignored him he’d just go away, but John was persistent. We peered out of the window to see a bent and shambling old man, wearing a filthy overcoat in the muggy heat, his aged face folded in on itself, carrying his possessions in a plastic bag.

“I worked here in 1951,” he informed us, “for the old man. You must cut this,” he ordered, indicating the bougainvillea at the fence.

“No, not today, thanks. We don’t need a gardener.” We don’t have a garden apart from some creepers, bricks and potplants. And if we did need a gardener, there was no way we would employ this ancient man to do manual labour.

“Give me a cuppa tea,” he said.

We tried ignoring him, but week after week he returned. I was defensive and angry that we should be beseiged in our home by this stubborn old man. It was my wife’s idea to give him a bit of money and a cup of tea and some food each week. In the end I put up with it because I was tired of getting angry every Sunday morning. Then we adopted dogs and our son was on the way and we became early-morning weekend people, and John became part of our weekend routine.

Every week he insisted on working. “I’m not a tsotsi.” And he disapproved of the way we let the bougainvillea trail its pink claws along our palisades. “You must cut this. The tsotsis can hide under here.” We tried to distract him with other small tasks. He cleaned up fallen leaves and trimmed creepers, shuffling along the bricks on his bum, stuffing the leaves into garbage bags with his hands. “Give me a broom. Give me a clipper.” At last we let him have his way with the bougainvillea, though without the ladder he requested.

Some weeks we’d give him his money and his tea and say “There’s nothing to do this weekend, maybe next week.” He’d point his disapproving finger and say, “The dogs kak there. It looks like a kraal.” “Maybe next week, John.” The next week he’d clean up the fallen leaves and the dog kak with his bare hands, then sit on the step and wash with a bar of soap in a bucket of hot water, enjoying his second cup of tea in the sun and patting Rosa.

Rosa was in love with John. She’d jump up against him when he came inside or when we met John on his rounds walking through the suburb. “Haai! Haai!,” he’d shout, but with a laugh in his voice, and he’d stroke her head. “Where’re the dogs?” he’d want to know if they didn’t come to the gate to greet him one morning. “Go and call the missus,” he’d tell Rosa when she did.

When the baby was born, John stopped calling at the gate, waiting outside until we were ready for him, writing in the notebooks we gave him. “Look, I’m learning,” he’d tell me. “I’m not a tsotsi.” He filled the books with his thoughts on life and on God. Once he asked me how to spell ‘shepherd’. When we brought the baby outside, he’d smile and say to him, “One day, you’ll help me in the garden.”

John didn’t appear the last few Sundays. We found out that he died crossing Roberts Avenue, the same road where recently a grandfather and his grandchild were killed by a speeding car outside a school. John was hit by a Metro Police car. The driver says he ran out into the road.

Though nobody knew his name, word got around, and after two weeks some family members from Dobsonville came to collect his body. They hadn’t seen him for twelve years. John had lived in the back room two houses down from us. The room was apparently full of old clothes and littered with the remnants and wrappers of the food John ate. He was secretive about his past, even with his family, but he was buried by someone who knew him.

John was 81 years old. He wanted to work. He knew our suburb well. He crushed his rusks against the step before he ate them. He threw his naartjie peels onto the pavement he had just cleaned. Last summer, he looked dapper in a new royal blue blazer. He liked three spoons of sugar in his tea.

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    October 31st, 2007 @16:45 #
     
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    Beautiful, Louis. A eulogy fit for a king.

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  • <a href="http://stephensimm.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Stephen</a>
    Stephen
    November 1st, 2007 @00:01 #
     
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    Beautiful.

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