Summer of 89
The heat haze hung low over the Bay as Sally Price waited to collect her daughter along with three friends. The three little girls were children of working parents and they usually took the train home from school. However the heat wave was so oppressive that Sally had offered to take the girls swimming after school and then drop them home.
She had made the offer quite casually but faced with the excited, shrieking seven-year-olds, she realized she was giving Julia’s friends a truly top treat. It was the look on Meera’s face that made her aware of how far these moments of inclusion made up a childhood. The child simply beamed from ear to ear and when she did manage to speak, words tumbled from her in a joyous babble.
Sally could not believe the energy generated by four happy children. The small car bounced along the road as the girls strained at their seat belts to catch glimpses of the sea or twisted around in their seats to shout repetitions of play ground scenes which brought on fits of giggles. Their hilarity was infectious and Sally felt the heat induced lethargy lifting. The afternoon took on an adventurous feel as the happy carload lurched into Fish Hoek beach car park. The girls could hardly wait to get out of their Star of the Sea Convent uniforms as they tumbled out of the car and headed for the change huts.
A bellow of “ Hey! Lady!” cut across their chirpy happiness.
A uniformed beach attendant was marching towards them, burning with righteous indignation.
The children stopped in their dash for the changing huts and fell silent. It was the sudden silence that brought Sally’s head up from the boot of the car where she had been searching for the sun block. She had not thought that the “hey lady” was directed at her until she found herself confronted by the attendant.
“Don’t you know that this is a Whites only beach? You can’t bring an Indian here. She stays in the car.”
“Of course,” Sally thought to herself, “this is February 1989 and we are on a beach in South Africa. Well, isn’t he aware that the whole rotten system is about to come down? Maybe I could ask him if witnessing its death throes is still necessary?” But his ugly attitude would require different handling. Sally became aware again of the stifling heat and her headache returning. She felt she simply did not have the energy for another argument with a bigoted and brainless representative of an unjust system. Treat cancelled.
Sally turned to summons the children to the car but the words never left her mouth. She saw that Meera had got back into the car and was staring fixedly at the seat in front of her. No tears, but it was painful to see the mixture of hurt, anger and embarrassment Meera was experiencing. In an instant, her laughing, happy innocence had become a confused, dark silence.
That was it! She turned to face the attendant with an urge to scream obscenities at him. But now that Meera was in the car, he had already marched back to his booth. She looked around for the other children. Kelly had raced so far ahead she had already changed into her swimsuit and stood staring at their group which had not moved.
“Please Mom, said Julia, “do something. We want to swim.”
Sally did not know exactly what she was going to do but she was determined that all four girls would have the promised swim.
“Go with Kelly,” she said to Julia and Anne. “Stay in the shallows, Meera and I won’t be long.”
Sally opened the car door and leaning in, put her arm around Meera.
“I am so sorry that man spoke about you like that. We are all going to swim here today, promise.”
Meera stared ahead, but Sally did not have time for more discussion. She needed to sort out the attendant.
When she reached his booth, she was surprised to hear two middle-aged women upbraiding him for his treatment of a Star of the Sea pupil. They were in full spate.
“Have you no respect for an institution that prides itself on the exemplary behaviour of its pupils?” one of them demanded. Sally jumped in.
“I am taking all four children for a swim. You are the only person objecting and your objections are inhumane. I will personally deal with whatever consequences you try to bring. Take the number of my car if you want to, but I do not want to see you anywhere near me or those children. End of story.”
Exhilarated, she turned on her heel and headed to the car to collect Meera for a swim. And what’s more, she thought, we will have ice-creams from the kiosk after the swim.