Notes From a Sugar-Curled Messenger

By | 1 November 2019

Iris tells me about being a teenager
in apartheid South Africa, 1970;
she feeds me chicken curry and rice
(my first home-cooked meal since arriving in Cape Town),
and her fingers are playing with a tea towel as she talks,
story lines creasing and smoothing,
once-starched, now soft.

The Catholic school she went to broke the law –
taking in students of any colour,
many of the teachers themselves activists
and the science laboratories used for making bombs;
gun powdered fingertips,
soon to clench and form the fists that would be raised
in homes, in streets, in defiance.

And on weekends
the girls would curl their hair and set it with sugar water,
the ringlets stiff and sweet;
and in them would be tucked tiny scraps of paper
carrying tightly-wound messages –
the honey in their beehives –
to be delivered to prisoners on Robben Island
(under the guise of visiting with the priest).

She tells me about the policemen lining them up;
her and all the other coloured children on the street,
the officers whipping the backs of their legs
until they turned the colour of shame,
hot like the beans and chilli her mother would make.
Still, nothing compared to the torture of her older brother,
who remained a political prisoner for ten years
and emerged with a nightfall in his eyes that never turned to dawn.

Suddenly, she is tired.
‘Ah, sweetie-pie’ she says, ‘It’s all history now’.
But as she packs away the dishes
I wind some of my hair in a tight knot around my finger,
until the tip becomes numb and my hair forms a perfect ringlet.
And I tuck our conversation away,
like a sugar-curled message,
because I know history has a habit of repeating itself.

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