Keep Writing

Thought missives and various writings by Robin Kelly - a South African centered in Johannesburg and a writer who rarely writes but reads

Monday, September 21, 2009


A few months ago at the onset of winter I decided to reorganise my study. What prompted the move were two overbearing antique Oregon pine bookshelves which had flanked the entrance but had sobered guests on arrival and departure. Since the bookshelf I did have in my study had collapsed – shockingly at 3am – under the weight of collections, I decided to lighten the entrance and make better use of them. On either side of a hundred year old study desk, they seemed more at home.

What the move prompted was an overhaul of cupboards and reorganisation of everything that had crashed to ground. With the exception of statements and receipts, months and weeks – in some instances years – of unfiled material cluttered the shelves and drawers. I consider it a curse that disarray like this inspires and challenges me. A neat staple, a perfect punch, followed by a well named file with an apt category divider and the universe feels calmer. It’s the unfilable stuff, the stuff that arrives inconsistently, unexpectedly, maybe only once – that results in what a friend once called Pile 13. I had a few of these. The real trouble is that most of the stuff in this loose, messy pile can’t form itself into a collection. It doesn’t merit the distinction of a titled and organised folder.
The bookshelves meant it had to be tackled.

Filtering through the cupboard shelves – it’s best to tackle them one by one until complete – I stumbled across a hall of ghosts. As with any organising principle, the cohesion and affinity you share with needful things ensures an intimate relationship with the past. Old photos of long forgotten ex’s. Scans of your most faithful dogs broken leg. Rejected builders quotes for the renovation you finally went ahead with. Crap like this you can’t file, can’t throw away, feel compelled to keep.
It’s when I found the wallet that everything started.

The wallet belonged to my father and was pretty well worn. In it, the remains of a poor man: conscientious of a small saving on a final withdrawal; a well thumbed estate agent card; a food receipt or two… telling only in its brutal simplicity. The usual reaction – guilt. The reason this wallet ended up in a back corner of a cupboard behind empty boxes and loose papers. Could I have averted his untimely death; could I have done more, helped more, paid more, been more to him? Had I been a grateful son, did I respect his toil to ensure my success – oh god would I ever be at peace with the shadow of this man!
Candle. A close friend had given me a candle to light in his honour. I knew exactly where the candle was and it felt like a good moment to light it, sitting in the center of the intellectual world that had brought me a certain level of achieved success. What I had forgotten however, was the date he had died.

When he died, I had bought a watch. Like every ad for a sophisticated timepiece, I was moved by the notion that you never really own an expensive watch, you merely hold onto it for the next generation. Having inherited little by way of things I figured it was time to start a tradition so I bought what was at the time a very expensive watch. Although the design and model was classic, a few years later I decided on another. I then packed the original watch into its box along with all the guarantees and into the cupboard – where it stayed for a few more years. Automatic Chronographs are deeply symbolic and much sought after. Rather than keep a universal time, they operate based on your movement. Why they’re sold at a premium with a Swiss stamp of approval and serial number when a simple battery that sends electric currents to a small quartz crystal ensures better timing accuracy, only those who have marked the years with them on their wrist can tell you. The point is, the watch could technically lie in an underground bunker for decades, be excavated, tied to a wrist and immediately bring order to the wearer’s sphere. No battery required. It is however recommended that you don’t do this and sooner get the cogs and barrels turning once every so often if you can. I would wear the watch on a few select occasions but would return it to its leather-bound casing straight after… Or so I thought.

Cleaning the study I came across the empty casing of the watch. My first approach was rational – it must be somewhere – but it rapidly deteriorated into panic as every spot it might have been offered nothing. For two days I stressed over its whereabouts - had it been stolen, when last had I worn it, why hadn’t I packed it back, why couldn’t I remember such important details. It felt like I was staring into the fridge trying to find the thing right in front of you.

On the third, still with an unresolved feeling, I laid a claim and set the insurance wheels in motion.

What should have been a simple claim resulted in consternation. The watch had cost a fair price when I finally worked up the courage to spend the money, and it was pretty specific when I chose it – but what I didn’t know, and apparently neither did the jeweller, was that it was a “Classic Re-edition”. First made in 1948, a limited number of the model had been released in the early 2000s. Now, trying to value and replace it, the rarity had not only made it almost impossible to find, but also unaffordable. My insurers had retained more or less the same replacement value and I hadn’t reevaluated the watch in all the time I had it – so I settled for a payout that was about 1/3 of my missing watch and replaced it with a more conventional, but still stylish, watch. Which my grandchild will inherit, along with this story.

So, first the wallet, followed by the empty watch casing, and then a final twist to the trinity superstition – I found my father’s death certificate. I’m not sure why I struggled to remember the date although I can guess at the fact that it had happened at a time when a lot of contradictions complicated my life and I’d just wanted to move on. The piece of paper in itself is the blandest testament to the fact that you will eventually leave all these things behind and ultimately be reduced to an expulsion of ink declaring you the victim of a single swift blow – in my father’s case: Stroke. Edwin Theodore Kelly. Male. Age 54. Died 24 May 2003.

The coldest moment of all –the Sunday I chose to do all this – 24 May 2009.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


For the first time in years, I can sleep. Sleep right through the night, uninterrupted, deep, regenerating sleep.

For the longest time I thought my inability to sleep was as a result of being a little overactive. From young, I was an early riser. During preschool years my mother would wake up to find me already at school. I would get up before dawn, wash, dress, make lunch, and then hop through her window since I couldn’t reach the door and was also concerned the noise of it closing might wake her. The trick was to get out unannounced – to be this stealthy, and ultimately considerate, would stand me in great stead in later years. I would get to school, the first kid there, and slide across the frozen dew – a boy ballet of blue eyed youth.

If there was no school, I would be thrilled by the silence of being around while everyone else slept in – Saturday mornings could last forever if you got up early enough, and you could be on your own if quiet enough. Living across the road from school, and also opposite a park, had a number of advantages. I could push my three wheeler out the complex, go some distance into the forest, and fire up the engine and tear about at will. I could watch Bond and Bruce Lee on the faintest treble of volume. So much to do, and so much time to do it, if you just get up early enough.

I always thought that’s where it started and to some extent it probably did – but in later years it became more and more of way of life, even when there was no reason to be up early. As a teen and student, I could get to bed at whatever time, in whatever state, and the same rule would apply – as the sun rose, so would I. Working career, no matter the deadline, I’d be up to start the day ahead of my peers.

This lack of sleep persisted throughout basically – to the point that I can’t imagine what it must be like to sleep the night through. I feel a sense of panic waking up without being aware of the first rays of light, and the thought of sleeping into mid morning would fill me with dread. Now that part, the dread, makes me wonder if its more than youthful optimism. At some point the opposite might have taken hold – perhaps a form of psychosis that has me terrified of losing time, of being less than I ought to, that without hard work I might surrender to sloth, go crazy and lose it all. Don’t laugh – there is some facetiousness in the extreme, but how else to explain the compulsion to constantly be awake when rest is needed?

The negatives far outweigh the positives. Anyone who has ever struggled with sleep will tell you that insomnia leaves you floating in a middle ground always beset by the shortcomings of either side. When you’re awake, you feel tired and need rest, when asleep you’re restless and a freight train of mental activity. You operate in a somnambulistic universe, constantly trying to focus yourself in the present moment – to feel grounded and weighted by the reality around you, not the anxious dreamlike compulsion to look ahead, be somewhere else, or even worse, just drop everything and come back to it later. Even dreams are fragmented and instantly forgotten, leaving a residue all too familiar – the panic of waking sending them fleeing like shattered splinters.

This impact on your concentration, which is little more than a focusing of all your energies in the exact present moment, is immense. So you try different things and one of the first for me was to push the compulsion to do things and to hope that the physical exhaustion might drag the mind down into the river of sub consciousness. Years and years of exercise though didn’t seem to help. I could swim marathons, cycle miles, climb mountains, nothing – the same impact, just a sense of feeling progressively more tired. And so it goes.

When a homeopath I trust recommended Melatonin at the age of 35, I was beyond the point of believing I could sleep. Imagine my surprise when on the first night of taking the little white pill, I past out only to wake up a few minutes after 7am – the sun a good way across the sky. Sitting here, a week later, writing, feeling sharp and acute, with a profound sense of time measured in clear moments, I start to feel the benefits of a healthy balance between the waking and dreaming worlds. Neither interfere with each other. I sleep when I’m tired and I wake when I’m well rested. When I’m awake I’m focused and active. When I sleep, process all unfiltered sensory experiences, clear all the unregistered nuances of the day, explore the infinite, dream deep and lose myself.

The cause is cortisol. A hormonal secretion linked to mental stimulation – it keeps you on your toes, alert to anything that might require you to lunge in any direction. Induced by stress and sport mostly, cortisol in good doses is a lifesaver of the most primitive kind. But constant ongoing levels of this in your system, brought on by anxiety and a fear of things yet to come, further propelled by rigorous over-activity, can steadily drive you crazy. And so the cycle perpetuates itself. You can’t sleep because you’re wired and alert; you can function because you’re drained, dragging a lifetime of unease, and tired.

It’s been a week. I’m becoming addicted to healthy sleep. I can nap in the afternoon. And wake up feeling rejuvenated. Although there’s no catching up for a lifetime of missed sleep, it feels like a good time to start.

(August 2009)

Friday, August 21, 2009


Yesterday I had a meeting with brokers who spent an hour trying to explain the blunt details of Income Protection against Disability and Dreaded Disease. It was fitting they were both wearing black, although I’m not entirely sure it was orchestrated. The discussion was informative and in darker hours the kind of thing you’ll be most grateful for having thought ahead – planning on mortality seems so difficult when your first reaction is ‘that wouldn’t happen to me’. But it does happen, and the closer it gets the more necessary investments in a potentially ugly future are.

The trick to getting through a conversation about how to spend money on your own demise (we touched on a Life Policy too) is to imagine three alternate realities and in each one you’ve send a message to your future self saying ‘I had you in mind many years ago and whatever unhappiness you’re currently facing, take a little time to reflect on your foresight’.

Let’s look at them in detail. The first, the one I actually initiated the relationship with the Brokers on, is Life Insurance. Simplest and most benign of them all. You die and those closest to you get an amount of money paid out to them directly. It’s less about you, and more about not leaving a mess of debt and panic. Let your family spend more time mourning you in other words.

Dreaded disease refers to the big three: Heart Attack, Stroke or Cancer. Should you fall victim to any of these your Medical Aid should kick in, but to what extent? And while you’re being treated, with escalating costs accumulating at some or another private clinic, what income in covering the domestic bills. You don’t of course think you’ll just jump right up and get back to work now do you? This is the point where the Brokers issue veiled threats and it is important to not to get defensive, but even more importantly, look beyond the emotional shock and simply focus on something peaceful – like having a few million injected into your account. Again, let your family spend time nursing you, not negotiating with a mortgage.

Disability is the dark horse. You’re maimed, incapacitated, no longer capable of functioning as you once effortlessly did, and although still a thinking, rational and creative mind, something darker has been mixed into the water. Things are cloudier, a sense of gloom invades you, and now you’re expected to continue the business of business. Do you think you’d have time and inclination for inane meetings and presentations; for handling that difficult client; for recruiting idiots that apply for positions they don’t understand with qualifications some institution didn’t imbue with market reality? I can imagine, again in darker hours, how difficult it must be. So the theory is, once you’ve crossed the limit of imagination (‘it wont happen to me’) your beneficiary will offer up 75% of your monthly income - while you remain incapacitated -until you’re 65. At which point you’re either dead and the Life Insurance springs forth; or, and this option is something I need to spend more time on, your Retirement Annuity matures.

The Brokers left with smiles and promises of sending paperwork.

It’s hard not to think about it when you’ve had death whisper in your ear it’s coming for you either way. The balancing act here though is that it’s less about death – I mean you’re gone, there’s nothing to worry about anymore and it was only money and you spent it wisely leaving your family so much behind. It’s also about quality of life, whatever should become of it.

Whatever should become of it.

Frost wrote of the path less travelled, making two – but there are actually four: 1. You lose your health, contract disease. 2. You Die. 3. Something sudden and damaging happens to you. 4. You wait to Die. There may only be one way out, but there are a few ways to get there. Can you imagine how disappointed, ailing you will be with Mr 35 if you don’t invest in any or all of these possibilities? How your amazing sandy-haired child with endless blue eyes will look into yours if you didn’t think what would happen to them, having been warned this moment would come…

And there it is. That’s when it hit me. I’ve been in this position. When my father lay in a coma, his cold, crouched, shivering body convulsing sporadically in an open ward at a general hospital, under-staffed and overburdened, with no hope of recovering from a violent stroke at the age of 54, I faced three days of desperation fueled by panic and helplessness. Financially cornered by the magnitude of the medical universe, I had to accept that my father had spent the last years of his life cutting back on all his policies – and if I wanted to ease my intuition that a private clinic might offer some hope, in the least a little more dignity, I’d have to pay for it myself with money I didn’t have. My father had spend the better part of our intense relationship asking me a pretty repetitive, and to his mind rhetorical, question: ‘Who pays…’

He always thought it was him.

But this isn’t about that. Guilt has few positive outcomes and should not be the motivator for making such investments in Inevitabilities. No, there’s something else that shines much clearer for me. It still has to do with my father, but it’s a different time –one more innocent, if ever our relationship had the luxury of that rare intimacy…

1979 and I’m in the passenger seat with my father. It’s Sunday afternoon, my most anxious time of day in any week, and we’re crossing Johannesburg central from the south of Rosettenville to the west of Florida in a Ford Cortina. In an attempt to illustrate to me how much better my life with him would be, he spoils me with a stop at a corner cafĂ© to grab some treats. Granadilla Yogisip and a beef samoosa – when you’re 6 you have capacity to mix unmixable things with joy not nausea. Just before the M1, on a long stretch of road through the industrial outskirts south of town, my father goes head on into a stationary car.

My first thought, after the slow motion shock of the metal grinding sound and piercing shatter of the glass, was the fact that granadilla yogisip was spilling on the floor and my dad would probably be very mad. My next was that I wouldn’t have to drink it – it had dated and was so sour my stomach had been churning just swirling the straw around in my mouth. I could have just mentioned this to my father and left it, but I knew it would have resulted in a swift about turn and flagrant unsettling cursing of some poor Portuguese cafe owner. Then the pain hit.

I was aware that during my spilt milk distraction, my father, covered in blood, was unleashing bile on the crew in the stationary car we’d slammed. It’s 1979 and if there’s a fault in the lives of the incredulous and oblivious South African psyche, it’s can be placed on the blacks. The four in the stationary car must have assumed he was possessed to be shouting such atrocities while smearing off blood from his face and hands and well permed hair. I watched the stodgy curdled liquid with dark little pips pour out of the cardboard box onto the floor. It smelt even worse, now all spread out and with the acrid sting of the accident still around me.

When he arrived back at the car it occurred him I might have been hurt. The glass of the windscreen was shattered and I was bent over with my head between my legs facing the floor. He could’ve only assumed the worst to have suddenly screamed out my name in such cold terror. I slowly looked up and towards him, a moment, now, sitting here, 2009, contemplating future proofing policies – must have been one of infinite relief. When my first words came pouring out, “It’s sour…” I think I saw for the one of those rare moments in my father/son relationship, pure love. Not the offspring of a failed and frustrating shotgun marriage at the onset of the 70s; not the constant disappointment of a man visiting uncertain expectations on a young boy; not the fury of self pity and wallowing – it was pure love. He was happy I was alive.

“Don’t worry about it my boy, are you ok, let me look at that bump on your head…”

I’m going to sign the papers.

(August 2009)


At the age of eight I was sent to live as a border in a town my parents had wrestled generations to get out of. There was nothing wrong with Kimberley. My grandparents lived there, and the thrill of an old Citroen still powered by hydraulic suspension held me in wonder only young boys can speak of. But it was a country away from the city I lived in. From the deep interior of the Karoo, farmers sent their children here to get formal education in this dry hot city with a ghost in the shape of a deep empty hole. They welcomed me, the strange English kid with plastic figurines and teddy bears. Extremes often find neutral ground.

Until this time I had lived between the spaces left by my parent’s separation. I was happy moving from one to the other depending on the days of the week and the weeks of the year. It might have been an attempt to bridge some familiarity in their parenthood that I was sent, during my third year of primary school, to the Kimberley Boys Junior. The school had served as a bastion to all that was Colonial and Proper and symbolized the single opportunity most would have of ever escaping its hard mineral history and small town devil-thorned churches.

Cherry-on-the-top swayed me. My dad spoke to me with inspirational bribes about the things I would love most. Despite the fact that it didn’t make any sense to me – I liked my school, I got good grades, I made good friends, was in every sports team – despite the fact I was happy with my life in Johannesburg, I was willing to accept his words as the advice I would so badly long for in later years.

He promised me ice-cream, which is again something an eight-year-old latch-key kid responds to. The particular brand, made with sugar, vanilla and milk, with a single glazed cherry on top, was called Cherry-on-the-top. It wasn’t made very well; frozen rapidly at low temperatures the sugar would crystallize and the ice-cream would get a splintery texture. So cold some would peel their tongues off. The wrapping, a waxy thin sheath, would stick to the ice-cream and the cone would often be solid to the touch, then soggy after a few minutes in the hot dry air.

How this convinced me to go has less to do with the hard sell of ice-cream than it did with the sweet soft light I saw in my father’s eyes as he saw his undefendable past melt with the unquestioning countenance of his son.

One night a few weeks into my new life, a major water pipe burst and all water to the town was stopped for three days. It was high summer, and that deep in the interior, temperatures were often on the shy side of 40 degrees – some areas a little further north in the Upington region often sweltering unbearably above that. Windless, hot, and as dry as dirt roads, there was nothing for a hostel of 50 young boys to do but get restless in the confines of housemaster Dr Killop’s heavy-handed and sleek-sticked rules. Imagine, 50 boys, 10 per room, and a weekend with no water.

The first night seemed an adventure. I had long since hidden my toys in a deep locker and had adapted to the less familiar ways of sheep farmer’s sons. I had somehow avoided many of the early aggressive fights to establish supremacy – glasses have always been good for me – and I moved between the cliques that resulted with cautious ease. With nothing to do but experience the first subtle suggestions of dehydration, those of us left for the weekend in the empty halls of the hostel fanaticized about the girls we thought might spend Saturday nights with us when we were older.

Hein was left alone for the weekend because his parents lived on a farm over 150km away and the journey was expensive and difficult for old bakkies. During my second week in the dorm, he had snuck up to me one night and suggested a game I immediately felt uncomfortable with and abruptly ended. He explained that it was common practice amongst the boys, but clearly wasn’t confident enough to pursue it further than my objections. We threw a tennis ball across the room while lying on our backs on opposite ends of the dormitory.

Sunday was the loneliest day in the entire world. Even now, of every day in the year, I can never enjoy what others find so religiously peaceful. Those of us without benefactors for a weekend were left to entertain ourselves. On Sunday morning we were marched to the local Methodist church and made to pray and sing in reluctant foot shuffling, muffled tones of praise.

By midday, it was clear that the water was not going to be coming back soon.

Back at the hostel, during dinner, I recalled the trauma I had experienced the week before when my mother and her new husband had come across to visit. They had dropped me off on the Sunday afternoon, and I could smell the hum of jacaranda trees mixed with the hot scent of tall walls painted stark white. The air was abuzz with the sound of beetles – a sound so piercing the mere friction of its consistency generated heat.

“Ok, you know it’s for the better, be good,” said my mother.
In the background, against the sheen of his electric blue Nissan, my stepfather looked on, not interested in what he anticipated would be a tear-filled scene.
“I know… but it’s lonely here.”
I could see my mother was going to cry – she thought I was motivated by self interest, being here, in Kimberly, eight years old and with dirt under my nails. I smiled, turned, and walked through the double doors into the deep old smell of wood mixed with the breath and footprints of decades of young boys in black leather bata toughies. I closed the massive door behind me – I must’ve looked a site to my poor mother – long hair and skinny arms with no front teeth and a freckled nose. I waved. Inside, seated in our communal hall with plastic cutlery at designated seats, choking back a glass of milk, I stopped the swell of salt water with every gulp.

That was a week ago, I said to myself, and tonight, Hein and I would watch the borders return, one by one till all 50 of us were a family again. Each would arrive with sweets and tales of dogs and lizards and meals mother’s and ouma’s had made. By 17:00, everyone was back and in the eating hall – a Sunday murmur beneath the sound of the senior’s steel and porcelain.

The mood in the hostel was low. No one had bathed, and warm milk was being rationed. The pipes spat shells of odorless warm air.

After dinner, back in the dorm, I looked out the window, waiting for the night sky. If anything felt like a bridge between the place I had been and the place I now found myself in, it was the understanding that night sky singularly had the same stars in Joburg as it did here on Kitchener Street, Kimberley. More than that I figured if a fire broke out, I could safely jump.

Like the moment of first rain, word started. At first, an overexcited shriek made its way across the more senior passage – and eventually burst into our room. The word was good – the word gushed the walls of every walkway and found the ears of every dehydrated tense child… over and over, the only word to be heard… “Water. Water.”

Showers sputtered into life, toilets flushed and we bent over taps in signal file, filling our hands, our faces and cheeks and mouths with water. Did it always taste like this? Boys flocked to the second floor bathrooms, eager to join the frenzy. So great were celebrations that we failed to consider the level of excitement we were beyond capacity to control. The only light that of the moon and all these boys, some naked, equal and wet with the splashing of water.
The solemn footsteps coming up the stairs found their way to the entrance before anyone noticed, and in a flutter of fluorescence the bright light brought authority back to the world.
Not a sound. Just light. No one dared say a word. Any place with that many boys needed rules, and no circumstances could bend them. A drop of water and an echo, followed by another.
Not that Dr Killops was sadistic, but such a transgression was incomprehensible. He’d dressed – he was of that generation that still did; no need for occasion. Standing at the entrance to the massive brightly lit bathroom in between 50 boys and their beds, he lowered his stick and stepped aside. One by one we would pass him. Not one of us cried in pain.

A few months later I was brought back to Johannesburg. Kids at school never really asked where I’d been; as if I had left, but had merely been attending classes somewhere other than theirs for a little while.
“Cool… with you gran, and grandpa – what was it called again?”
“Kimberly,” I would answer, “by the big hole…” and then walk across the road to my home.

(March 2006)