This is an extract from Jani Confidential (Jacana, 2015) by Jani Allan.
If you really want to know who I am, let me tell you a story. The windows of my memory are casually framing pictures of a roseate hue. I just happened, for a while, to be at the top of a layer cake with icing decorated with stars.
The story I am going to tell you contributed immeasurably to my sense of self.
It is my Gordon story.
Gordon Schachat will tell you the story. My shrink will tell you the story.
Gordon said he saw me walking down the steps of the Great Hall at Wits University and decided then and there to marry me. That day my avatar was wearing a chocolate suede midi-skirt buttoned up the front and a pair of matching chocolate suede thigh boots. I was twenty-one.
Gordon took to hanging around the canteen when he knew I would be around. He was handsome and tanned. He looked like a short Kris Kristofferson. He had a way of talking quietly so that I would lean in to towards him. He would drive up the hangar where we painted in a series of flashy cars. My fellow students drove ancient puddle-jumpers or, in Gregory Kerr’s case, a Vespa.
When I asked him why he was so tanned, Gordon told me he was a builder.
The fine arts students explained.
He’s Gordon Schachat.
‘Schachat Cullum, the builders.’ they explained. ‘Haven’t you heard of Norscot?’
I had. It was about three blocks from Eaton Avenue. The sale of Ernst Eriksen’s Norscot estate in Witkoppen was a splendid social event. It was described as the largest house in the southern hemisphere. Some 3 000 items were offered for sale. Those seen bidding include Marino Chavielli, Gary Player and Barbara Barnard.
The catalogue was impressive: four Anton van Wouw bronzes, three early 19th century views of Table Bay, two Franz Oerders, the moquette for John Tweed’s statue of Cecil John Rhodes, and a rare Peter Wenning still life.
My mother was rather keen on a beautiful antique (1812) carved cradle which had been filled with flowers as a floral arrangement for the 1953 Rand Club Coronation Ball.
The original farm which had stretched as far as today’s Fourways Crossing, was split up and most of it purchased from the Eriksen family by Schachat Cullum.
I was embarrassed by Gordon’s attention at first. I was so much taller than him for a start. But his eyes read me like an autocue. He was smart and confident.
Gordon knew the longitude and latitude of my insecurities and vanities. Weeks would go by and I wouldn’t hear from him. Then he would send me a cutting of modelling photographs of me, just for a lark, to let me know that he hadn’t forgotten me. Once he turned up at the hangar in a Rolls Royce full of flowers. On another occasion, on a whim, we drove to Durban in his 450SL with the top down.
When we checked into the Oyster Box we didn’t make love. Instead we watched Butley, one of my favourite movies based on the play by Simon Gray, about the trials of a pair of gay intellectuals at a London university, makes frequent references to TS Eliot. Some of the lines were to become ‘our’ language.
‘Lust is no excuse for thoughtlessness’ and ‘You didn’t ask me this before.’ ‘I didn’t ask you now, either.’
‘I know, but I got tired of waiting.’
We would watch and re-watch the scene where Butley is questioning Joey about his new boyfriend.
‘What does he do, Reg’s dad?’
‘He owns a shop.’
‘What kind of a shop? Just a shop. Just a shop like Harrod’s, for example? What does he sell?’
Joey (after a pause): ‘Meat, I think …’
‘In that case he either owns a meat museum or it it was for sale he’s what’s called a butcher!’
We would fall about laughing.
Perhaps it was really good pot.
Poor Roddy, my current boyfriend, was eclipsed by Gordon’s flash. I was as careless as a man looking for honey who overlooks the precipice.
Gordon would fetch me in the convertible – he always wore a news-boy cap and would have one in the glove box for me – and we would go and look at Schachat Cullum show houses. The Schachat brothers, Louis and Hymie were from Robertson in the Cape. From becoming building contractors, they segued into buying tracts of land and then, by dint of clever marketing, were in the very profitable business of selling a lifestyle, rather than mere houses.
Buying a Schachat Cullum house mean that you were probably professional, probably white, and this was your first time as a home-buyer.
Gordon and I drove around in the convertible with The Police or Talking Heads blaring from the speakers. He took me to the Zoo Lake Restaurant and taught me to eat strawberries with fresh black pepper.
He was on good terms with the Greek cafe owners in Illovo. He seemed to be able to speak Portuguese to the greengrocers and spoke Zulu to the petrol pump attendants. He had gone to school at Kearsney College.
When he allowed me to drive his car home one night I began to think he liked me. Maybe he was just too stoned to drive himself.
At Hyde Park Corner, just as I started driving along William Nicol highway, it started raining. By the time I got home to Bryanston I was soaked. I was also unable to figure out how to put the soft top on. Ananias had to be woken up to help me pull a tarpaulin over it.
I left my mother’s house to move in with Gordon. I wanted to belong and what better club to belong to than a Jewish one. Even then I had Jew envy.
We stayed at the Rosebank Hotel until we were able to move into the home Gordon had bought for us as 33 Kallenbach Drive, Linksfield Ridge. The Rosebank was a herky-jerky kind of place but we found it amusing.
I had been with Gordon for a few weeks when I started writing classical music reviews for The Citizen. I would go to the City Hall for a concert, leave as the applause ended and rush to The Citizen’s offices in Doornfontein to type up the review on an old-fashioned typewriter around midnight. It was an exercise in solitude, but not, in those days, danger.
After a few months of writing music critiques and emboldened by Gordon, I had the temerity to ask then editor of the newspaper, Johnny Johnson, if he would let me write a column for the paper.
‘Only special people can write columns,’ he said. ‘You’re not … special enough. You’re a … Barbie doll.’
A week later, again shored up by Gordon’s belief in me, I went to the Sunday Times to apply for a job as a columnist. Madeleine van Biljon, the doyenne of columnists, was resigning. I was wearing a black-and-white shirt dress and Estee Lauder Berry Basket lipstick. I was fearless. Gordon was my soft place to fall.
Tertius Myburgh cast a glance over my music critiques, which I had pasted in a hard-covered book.
‘So you have no previous journalistic experience?’
‘No, but no one’s perfect,’ I said.
‘Well anyone who can write about ‘muscular bowing’ must know something, he shrugged.
And so I became a columnist.
Within a week Leslie Sellers had designed the logo for my debut column. It had three byline pictures and it was called ‘Just Jani’. ‘We have to drop the T from Janet otherwise it won’t fit,’ explained Leslie.
My first column appeared in March 1980. It was a profile of Bill Haley who was coming to perform in Johannesburg. Adele Lucas had organised an escort of Hell’s Angels for him from the airport.
‘I thought you were dead,’ I said to Bill Haley.
‘I thought I was dead too.’ he responded.
I keep thinking about what happened and what I could have done differently. Pretty much everything, I suppose. Graham Greene’s observation that fame is a powerful aphrodisiac is only partly true – fame can make some men powerfully attractive to men, but it works exactly the opposite way for women. On the whole, fame is the most unattractive quality a woman can possess. As my column – and yes, my ‘fame’, limited as it was in South Africa – grew, so did my anxieties. I was writing my regular column (three or four pieces) as well as a radio column and an art review. I had to come up with someone interesting to interview every week. I also had a nightly pop news spot on the David Gresham show on Springbok Radio.
It is said that there are two phenomena common to successful people, which are perhaps complementary: a sense of isolation (particularly in childhood) and a supra-ordinate belief system which affords them a place in the scheme of things.
I certainly had the sense of isolation. And I was driven. Gordon had to live through the weekly angst about the column. It was like re-inventing the wheel every week. My validity as a partner hinged – or so I thought – on my success as a columnist.
The column was the all-consuming Moloch. When it had been put to bed, there was nothing left of me.
An adopted only-child is not good at sharing. I couldn’t share a bed with Gordon, preferring to go to the spare room. I was excruciatingly shy about my body (my mother’s daughter) and was unable to blend the three kind of love, Eros, Agape and Amor, in our relationship.
I disliked sex. I remember reading that in India the god of love is a large, vigorous youth with a bow and quiver of arrows. The names of the arrows are ‘Death-bringing Agony’ and ‘Open Up’.
I didn’t have the courage for that kind of physiological and psychological surrender.
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Copyright © 2015 Jani Allan