My Mother, Myself
My moon is in Capricorn. Astrologers will tell you that this signifies a plate-glass cold maternal figure, distant and given to withholding praise and affection.
So it was with Janet Sophia.
She scooped me up when I was a runt with cabbage ears. I could fit in a shoe box. She named me Isobel Janet. She didn’t tell me I was adopted until I was eighteen. She was short-fused and I had annoyed her about something or other. ‘I didn’t want you. I really wanted a little boy!’
I ran out of the house and sat in the stable for hours.
But I am my mother. More importantly, I am her creation. Then – and still now – the long, thin beam of her spirit flashes over me and I am found wanting.
‘After all the money I spent on making you a consort fit for a prince, you are a waitress in New Jersey. New JERSEY?’
John Murray Allan was born in Peterhead, Scotland. He came to South Africa for the climate. He met Janet Sophia – or Molly, as she was called – at a funeral.
Before she met Jack Allan, my mother was married to a drunk who beat her. Once he broke all the fingers in her right hand. She would sit at a bus-stop through the night rather than go home or turn to a neighbour. Hers was a troubled life.
But when she met Jack Allan happiness struck her like a Highveld shower.
He was the chief sub-editor at The Star newspaper. A slight man with a small moustache who loved to have piano sing-alongs while enjoying a wee dram or two.
He died when I was eighteen months old. I have no recollection of him, save that he gave me a book of dog breeds. I scribbled over the Airedale terrier. He must have been an evolved soul to have chosen me.
My mother went to work at De Beers and left me in the capable hands of my Zulu nanny, Dennis. I have pictures of Dennis pushing me on a swing. He is a gentle, pock-marked giant.
In addition to adopting me, my mother fostered three other children. One of them, a teenage boy of about sixteen, took me into the garage when she was at work and did inappropriate sexual things to me.
I screamed, but there was no one to hear me.
When he let me go, I burrowed into my mother’s cupboard, sobbing into her expensive coats. I hid there until she came home. I never told her what happened. I feared that it was my fault.
Memory is a lasso, with which we capture the wild ponies of the past and attempt to tame their chaos. Sometimes we have to let a pony go because it is threatening our sanity. That was one such pony. I blanked it out of my mind until I started thinking about my childhood to write this.
My mother disapproved of the foster children’s mother. She would come to visit bearing OK Bazaars bags of sweets on which they would gorge themselves until they all suffered bilious attacks.
When the foster children departed I was the cynosure of my mother’s attention. I remember once putting my tiny hand through the mangle of the old washing machine. She let me sit on her lap and listen to Alfred Cortot playing Chopin’s preludes in an attempt to drown out my screams.
There was always music in the house. Opera and piano recitals. I remember the sound of the needle poised on the records making the noise of hushed applause before the music started.
When I was four my mother asked me if I would like to learn to play the piano. I replied that I would teach myself. She immediately set about finding me a teacher.
My first piano teacher was a glamorous young girl called Letitia van Onselen. Mrs van Onselen was a blowsy redhead, who told me, ‘Her name is really “Laetitia”. Lae. It is the Latin word for “wisdom”.’
The Van Onselens lived in a red-brick house in Linden with manicured hydrangea bushes on the stoep. There was never any sign of père Van Onselen. I would wait in the ante-room on the tapestry couch until Letitia opened the doors and released the preceding victim.
Then commenced the instruction. Intricate torture – of learning scales, arpeggios and one hour of Hanon finger exercises every day. Playing the piano and practising the piano are two different things.
Straight after school, three days a week, my mother would drive me to Linden and wait in the car reading her antique silver hallmark book or her McCall’smagazines. She was vaultingly ambitious for me.
Her ambitions were realised. For some reason, still unbeknown to me, it turned out that I was a child prodigy. Every piano competition I entered I won. After each win I was given a Noddy book.
When I was ten I played with the Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra. I still have the tiny blue dress I wore. For that achievement I was given two Noddy books and a large flat box of chocolates bound with blue silk ribbon with a photograph of ballerinas on the top.
Letitia taught me piano. Her friend Jenny Barlow taught me ballet. Then there were elocution lessons, art lessons, and Scottish dancing lessons. My mother deserved multiple medals for her dedication to my cultivation.
I remember my first experience of public rejection as though it were yesterday.
I am at Franklin D Roosevelt Primary School. It is a freezing Highveld winter’s morning. My mother makes me wear a pair of blue corduroy pants instead of the regulation brown skirt.
A knot of little girls giggle and point.
‘What’s wrong with you? Bluey! Bluey!’ they chant.
Hot tears course down my cheeks.
More discrimination is to come. Since my mother home-schooled me from the age of three, I am far in advance of my classmates. I am sitting next to a girl called Yolanda (who presses too hard with her HB pencil) when Mrs Bosman calls me to the front.
‘You’re going to go straight to Standard One,’ she tells me kindly. Then she hugs me. As she squashes me to her massive bosom a little nervous dove flutters in my stomach. I am gutted at the good news.
Later, I am moved to Blairgowrie Primary School. My mother designs the school uniforms: Murray of Atholl tartan kilt and a cut-away jacket. I have a picture of myself, a clipping from The Star. I am aged seven, proudly modelling the uniform. My mother is also proud. She had researched the precise tartan that was appropriate to Blairgowrie in Scotland. She also got her way by insisting that the jacket be cut-away, not the regular blazer.
My hair is in a ponytail. I am wearing hand-made crocheted socks. I hate the socks because they slide down under my little heels. I wish I had cheap nylon socks like the other kids.
More than anything I wish I were more like the other kids. I wish my mother didn’t have antique furniture. I wish we had ordinary furniture – the kind my mother refers to as ‘shop furniture’.
Decades later I encounter the same kind of snobbery. Alan Clark, one of Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet ministers, says contemptuously of the Conservative MP Michael Heseltine: ‘The trouble with Michael is that he had to buy his own furniture.’
My mother, the virgin matriarch, is an unapologetic snob.
* * *
I wanted a pony. My bedroom was plastered with pictures of horses. There was a caveat. If I got a pony, I would have to take care of it.
Prince was thirteen hands high and slightly coffin-headed. I thought he was beautiful. When I put my ear next to his and I heard the glug-glug of him swallowing water I thought I would die of happiness.
I would muck out the stables before practising the piano, which was before going to school. On rainy days I would take his bridle apart, clean every piece of tack and reassemble it.
Some nights before a gymkhana, my friend Sandra and I would sit up all night playing Monopoly. Then at five in the morning we would groom the ponies and set off. Puppence, a mutt with a permanent smile on her face, would sit on the pommel of the saddle when she grew tired of running beside us.
My mother would be at the gymkhana grounds with peanut-butter sandwiches and thermos flasks of orangeade.
When my mother refused to buy me a fly-sheet, I cut up a candlewick bedspread and sewed a blanket on my doll’s sewing machine. It was probably the first and last time I was motivated to sew.
I wrote prayers of thanks for those days on little pieces of paper and each night kneeled in thanks. I pleaded for God to make me a good little girl.
One day when we are driving to town we come across a man with a donkey and its foal. He is taking them to the abattoir. My mother pays him for both. We tie the jenny’s legs together and manoeuvre her onto the back seat of the BMW. The tiny brown foal sits on my lap.
Daisy Mae and Bambino are the first of many donkeys my mother will rescue. Actually, she was always rescuing things.
I was another rescue.
* * *
When I was five my mother remarried.
She had met an English widower, Walter Eric Monteith Fry, at a funeral. (Funerals were evidently fruitful grounds for meeting people in those days.)
I cried bitterly.
‘I thought that when I grew up you would marry me,‘ I protested.
I believe my mother married not for love but rather because she wanted to be able to stay home and take care of me.
My beloved nanny Dennis and I both cried. He didn’t factor into the merger at all.
I have a picture of myself as the flower girl at my mother’s wedding. She is a severe and elegant woman, towering over me. My face is upturned like a flower at the foot of a cross.
We moved to Ferndale to a thatched-roof home called Littlestones.
Daddy Fry had grown children, Margaret and Geoff. They hated their new stepmother and in return she disliked them. Geoff would turn up with a gang of motorbikers on Sunday afternoons, not so much to visit, but to torment.
I was considered a spoilt brat. After Daddy Fry turned the garden hosepipe on me one day I never trusted him. Until the day he died we lived in the same house but had an empty, minor-key relationship, scarcely talking. Mostly we avoided each other the way a stream flows around a discarded wheelbarrow.
My mother, as it turned out, with her relentless disciplining and her refusal – or inability – to adore me the way I wanted to be adored, was teaching me the lessons I would need in order to be able to survive.
When I fell off my pony, she made me get up and ride. ‘Cease this detestable boo-hooing!’ she said.
Once when we were riding to hounds, my pony Blue Boy – Prince had been joined by Blue Boy, Quantas and a lovely bay mare called Can Can – pulled like a train.
‘Keep that pony under control! Will you keep that pony under control?’
Blue Boy promptly stopped dead in front of a jump and the field galloped over me.
Exasperated, my mother eventually asked Ernest Hayward, a local horseman of note, to take me – and Blue Boy – under his wing. For a while Blue Boy was stabled with Ernest. Now Ernest took over the bullying. ‘Ride that pony! He’s on the wrong leg. He’s on the wrong leg!’
When we went to a show in Kelvin, Ernest offered to walk the jumps with me.
I tripped over the boundary rope. I was mortified.
‘First fall of the day!’ said Ernest heartlessly.
Some days my mother would ride with me. She was magnificent on a horse and quite fearless. Once, Can Can shied violently at something in the bush. My mother was unseated and her foot caught in the stirrup -iron. She was dragged for a hundred yards before Can Can stopped.
‘Unfortunate,’ was all she said as she swung herself up into the saddle.
* * *
Letitia felt that I needed expert tuition and I was passed on to her piano teacher, Grace Brockwell. Grace was a tiny hamster-like spinster who taught in rooms in Eloff Street.
Straight from school I would catch the 74 bus on Barry Hertzog Avenue to Loveday Street. From there it was a short walk to Fattis and Monis, where I sat at the counter and ate lunch: a hotdog and a cup of coffee. There was change from twenty cents.
I always prayed before I went into the building in Eloff Street. There was an ancient, juddering lift with heavy concertina cage doors.
I waited in the Stygian gloom of a cramped entrance hall until it was time for my lesson.
Miss Brockwell’s room was next door to Professor Epstein’s. Professor Epstein was a celebrated concert pianist who only taught the crème de la crème.Occasionally I caught a glimpse of him – an emaciated Beethoven-looking character.
While Grace Brockwell was gently guiding me through Mendelssohn, Professor Epstein was not as tolerant with his own students. I could hear him shout through the thin wall.
‘No! No! No! ON the beat. Then pianissimo,‘ he hissed.
Mid-town Johannesburg was quite safe for a little girl of eleven. The greatest threat, according to my mother, was from the low-lifers who would hang out in the Loveday Street Milk Bar. According to my mother, tattooed bus drivers were low-life.
The other peril was falling asleep on the bus on the way home. I remember one time waking up only when the driver had reached the terminus in Fontainebleau. He came upon me curled up in the back seat when he was checking the bus for lost property.
* * *
My mother was exacting about table manners. Once when I handed her a cup of tea, some of which was spilled in the saucer, she flung it at me. Table manners loomed large on her agenda. ‘Show me a man’s table manners and I’ll show you who he is.’
But her devotion to my education and cultivation was sans pareil.
She sewed my ballet costumes. One was a can-can costume, black-and-white gingham. The lining with its tiers of ruched tulle was a miracle. No Moulin Rouge dancer could have had a costume stitched with such care. I fancy love flashed like scissor blades as my mother cut the satin cloth.
There was a moonbeam costume too, diaphanous and spangled with stars.
But horse-riding was my obsession.
At the age of ten, when I debuted with the Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra, Stephen Mulholland, who was a young reporter with The Star newspaper, came to interview me. My mother told him that I read Chaucer before I went to sleep. (It was true.)
When he asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I told him that I wanted to be a jockey. My mother was narked.
‘He probably thought you meant a disc jockey,’ she said superciliously.
When I contracted rheumatic fever, I was in bed for weeks. Our GP Dr Perlman would come and see me every other day and listen to my heartbeat. Say ‘Aaaaah.’
‘Aaaaah,’ I would echo dutifully, although I never could really see the point.
One Friday night I heard on BBC radio that ‘four mop-topped boys from Liverpool who call themselves the Beatles are set to take America by storm’.
Daddy Fry and my mother had rows. Usually, they were about money. Once she threw a heavy pot of her Estée Lauder face cream at his head. Then she yanked me out of bed and told me we were leaving. The routine was fairly predictable. We would walk up Hendrik Verwoerd Drive and Daddy Fry would follow us in the car and beseech her to calm down.
Her nerves were the blue rim flickering dangerously on a gas ring.
At the same time that she opened her antiques shop she took me house hunting.
One of the first places we went to view was Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia. I recall a ramshackle property set well back from the road and a dead rat floating in a brown swimming pool. Someone had made a fire in the sitting room. On the wall was spray-painted ‘Fuck the Whites. Viva ANC’.
My mother put her hands over my eyes.
‘Not this one,’ she told the realtor firmly.
I graduated from Miss Brockwell to Professor Epstein. I still feel his clammy, ancient tree-toad fingers guiding mine as they fly over the keyboard. I still smell the musty music books, the dusty venetian blinds and I see the faded, embroidered silk shawl on the Bechstein grand piano.
* * *
High school presents a fresh hell. I wear a blazer to conceal my lack of breasts. My legs are like twigs stripped of their bark.
The boys call them Wednesday legs. ‘When’s dey gonna break?’
My classical music training is also an embarrassment. When it is announced at morning assembly that I have been selected to play at the Young Artists’ Concerto Festival I am embarrassed.
I start having pre-recital nerves. I resent the three hours I have to spend at the piano each day.
I start furtively listening to LM radio on my little transistor radio under my pillow.
My interest in fashion amuses my mother. She admits that she finds the Beatles’ ‘Ob-la-di-Ob-la-da’ quite catchy. She sews a splendid Sergeant Pepper military coat for me. It has buttons like doorknobs and a red lining.
Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd
Copyright © 2015 Jani Allan