by Colleen Higgs



One of the big reasons I carried on seeing Louis long past our relationship's sell-by date was because I was afraid of his sister. She was a famous activist who'd been in prison for several years; she had a certain angry gravitas that made me nervous. It wasn't the real reason but it sounded convincing to me in weak moments.

It ended badly with Louis. We didn't stay friends afterwards, and we weren't exactly enemies either. If I saw him at the movies or somewhere we would greet each other and have some sort of awkward conversation for at least three minutes. At first he didn't want to believe it was over. He kept prolonging things, coming round to my place, acting as if we hadn't broken up, as if there were still things we needed to sort out.

He was so sweet in the beginning, I was a hungry homeless cat, I fell for his warmth.

By the end, we'd fought more than we'd had fun. I was so pathetic I even had to go for polarity massage therapy to help me break up with him. I felt sorry for him, for some mad reason. As though he wouldn't be better off without me; and of course he was. His anger wasn't personal, I see that now, but at the time I was secretly thrilled by how furious he would get. Like his anger was in direct proportion to how much I meant to him.

He didn't have a car when we first got involved. He used to cycle or walk from Brixton where he lived in the garden flat of an influential leftie sociologist and UDF leader. He'd arrive at my flat, his dark curly hair tousled and sweaty. One time we had an arrangement to meet at the Radium, which I completely forgot about. It wasn't like me at all. Later on I was at home after having gone to a movie with Tina. I was drinking a cup of tea in bed, when there was a loud knock on the door. I went to see who it was. It was Louis. I was tempted to pretend I wasn't there, but I let him in. He was sopping wet, his feet were muddy and he looked deranged. He didn't say anything at first. "You're wet," I said, stating the obvious.

"I've just walked all the way from the Radium. Where were you?" he was close to shouting.

I suddenly remembered our arrangement. I wasn't sure which way to play it, should I apologise or should I wait for him to remind me and then apologise? I decided on option A. "Oh God, sorry, I completely forgot."

He was strangely cool. "I tried phoning, there was no reply."

"I went to a movie; I've only just got in. I totally forgot."

His wet feet stained the otherwise immaculate parquet, but I felt too guilty to complain. I didn't want him to stay the night in my bed, but it was either that or drive him back to Brixton. Needless to say I took the 'easier' option.


I only got really furious with Louis once — he had keys to my flat and I discovered he'd taken a bite out of a block of cheese I had in my fridge. I saw his teeth marks and it had to be him, because even though Joseph, the live-in flat cleaner from Tugela Ferry, had keys and used them twice a week, he would never have the temerity to open my fridge and bite into a block of cheese. "You're a sad, oversized mouse!" I shouted at him when I saw him the next day. "How dare you?" I didn't have keys to his place, his important sociologist didn't want too many people having keys to the place security threat and all that. So there was no chance of me taking secret bites out of his cheese or anything else as reprisal.

With Louis I constantly felt I was trying to hold boundaries, he was trying to cross them, like an out of hand four year old. I don't know why but the cheese thing really freaked me out. I was scared I would blowtorch him. Even thinking of it now I feel so pissed off and this was what – ten, fifteen years ago?

I used to wonder what Joseph thought of me. He always waved cheerily if I waved first. Otherwise he pretended not to see me, which I didn't mind, it made tricky situations a little easier. I liked him and was grateful to him for his discretion and for the way he made my flat smell of lavender floor polish and Handy Andy and for the clean bath and shiny floors. I liked his deep voice and straight back and his laughter. I often heard him laughing in the street below my flat in the afternoons if I wasn't at work, or from the back of the flats in the evenings.


Anyway the first time Louis and I went out together on a 'date' it was to Rumours, in Rockey Street. Every night of the week there was live music there, sometimes I knew the musicians. For a while Jon Voight, that American actor who was in Champ with Faye Dunaway, he hung out in Yeoville for a while, most people I knew pretended not to recognise him, to give him space and not embarrass him or themselves.

Rumours was a gloomy, smoky place and there were always people to flirt or drink with. It was almost compulsory to go there before you slept with someone. Louis and I drank beer and looked at each other a lot and told anecdotes about our sorry childhoods. We had a lot in common, same majors at university, he also loved reading and writing and was a good editor. Of all the men I was ever involved with he really liked my family in all their boisterous generosity and madness, they made him feel at home. It was one of the things about him that both warmed me to him and made me suspicious of him. He wore round glasses without frames, they made him a bit geeky, a look I found attractive. He was a little overweight, all the beer, but cute and when he was happy he smiled like a kid.

Before I met Louis he'd been involved with this woman, Arlette, who had two abortions. He was still a little freaked out by this, because he thought she was on the pill. Although he thought he didn't want to be a father, he also didn't want to be the cause of two abortions. He'd been brought up Catholic and it just didn't sit well with him. He insisted on using condoms with me, even though I had a diaphragm. I couldn't take the pill, it made me feel pre-menstrual all the time, bloated, headachy and more than slightly ratty. I was relieved that he used condoms; we were just starting to be aware of HIV/AIDS then. I used my diaphragm and he used condoms, I didn't entirely trust him, not with that track record and he didn't trust me. Perfect way to start a relationship.

In the beginning we were enchanted with each other, he'd come up with these fabulously romantic things to do, like going for walks on the ridge at dusk with a bottle of wine and two glasses. We'd watch the lights come on all over the city, sitting close together, drinking and arousing each other with rubbings and bumpings; intensely more erotic than later on with all our clothes off in bed.

He gave me great presents, a pair of hiking boots, strong expensive ones that lasted for years and before that a pair of black Nike trainers that I wore till they fell apart. I loved the Nikes even though I was a bit dubious about wearing them, the exploited labourers and all. He also often bought me flowers and one year he bought me a dot matrix printer.

I seemed to have enough money to drink Irish coffees and listen to live music, and usually enough to pay the bills, just. Servicing my car was always a financial headache, I didn't understand the meaning of budgeting and it would always come as a huge surprise when I had to fork out R400 for a service and parts. I would borrow money from Louis, or pay on my credit card and then have to stay home nights for a few weeks, till I could afford to go jorling again. I never thought about saving, life was too makeshift and uncertain, what exactly would I be saving for? Very few people I knew owned their own places, unless their parents had helped them out or if they had trust funds.


Once we went hiking near Pilgrims' Rest, it was utterly romantic. We were happy camping there, cicadas as incessant as the silence in a cathedral. We stopped along the road and swam in farm dams and ate those café-toasted ham and cheese sandwiches on white bread, the kind where the cheese is almost orange and melty.

He introduced me to the palm wine music of S E Rogie, which I loved, and when I hear it now it reminds me of the trip to Swaziland. Rogie's music was very African, but it was an Africa I had only caught glimpses of and wanted to discover more of. Palm wine music is good natured, melodious, and sounds like contagious fun. When we played it on the car tape my spirits would lift immediately, Rogie's flowing deep voice and the light acoustic guitar made me feel as though I was already jorling. The world felt bigger, more interesting and more full of adventure.

He told me a story as we were driving that made me see him differently. "I peed in my pants at this border post once, when I crossed into Swaziland in the boot of a stolen car. It was a dark blue Cressida, shit it was hot in there. I had to drive it to Mozambique once we'd crossed over. I was terrified they would open the boot. I don't know if I was more afraid of being found, or of being found having wet my pants." I liked it that he told me the story, for all kinds of reasons. It made me see him as intrepid and vulnerable, a killer combination.

We hiked in pine forest near Pigg's Peak, swam in rock pools at Malalotja, camped there, and drank in bars in Mbabane, just beers, no palm wine to be had. I felt young and beautiful, for the first time in my life sort of in control of things, living the kind of life I wanted to be living. We were cool and relaxed, tourists, but not. I loved the vibrancy of Swaziland, the bright colours and the different energy to that of South Africa at the time. The only sour note was while we were swimming in some rock pools at Malolotja, a squadron of hornets appeared out of nowhere and attacked me and not him. I had to dive into the water to get rid of them. Later when we drove back to Mbabane the stings throbbed and burned, I had an allergic reaction, had to take antihistamine to bring down the swelling. I felt angry with him, as though he was to blame because he hadn't got stung and because the whole Swaziland trip was his idea.

Several months later I discovered I had bilharzia, more than likely from that trip. I lost weight and had terrible diarrhoea, I don't know why I didn't go to the doctor sooner than I did. So in the end that holiday was somewhat fraught for me and it signalled the beginning of the end with Louis. There was a faulty trip switch that short-circuits the good. We started having small arguments; later on these became full-blown rows, which included him throwing pizza at the walls of my flat. My friends didn't believe me when I told them, because he seemed so gentle.


By the time it was over between us, we never did romantic things anymore, it was just silence, eating, rows, sleeping in the same bed, our bodies hardly ever touching. I knew that it was also my fault, just being in the same room as him made me feel argumentative and hard done by.

Louis liked drinking; usually he drank beer, mainly Amstels and Castle milk stout, in 750ml bottles, or Guinness if he could get it. In those days you couldn't easily because of sanctions. He also liked buying expensive bottles of Tequila or single malt whisky and drinking most of the bottle in one evening. He frequently had blackouts. He was even sort of proud of them. I think he saw it as living on the edge, risky, even cool somehow. It was a way he could be wild, even though he wasn't wild, not really.

In those last few months, he'd be sunk uncomfortably into the sofa bed in my lounge, pouring glass after glass of Guinness, the sofa bed listing to one side. His dark rage lurked in the Guinness, I was never sure exactly why the drinking unleashed it. I asked Nicky, my therapist, but for the life of me I can't remember what she said. I would sit in the armchair; we'd hardly say anything to each other. I would get up and check on the supper, say chicken curry. He would pick out the raisins and carrots, depending on how much he wanted to irritate me. The built-in two bar heater would only warm a small arc around itself, so I was cold. By then we'd already broken up at least once. I remember wanting to tell him to leave me alone, that it was over for me. But the words would stick to my tongue like flies, and I couldn't spit them out.

I was always hoping he would go home and not sleep at my flat in those last few months. One time I said straight out, "Are you going? I want to go to bed now."

"Well if I'm not wanted," he said, grabbing his canvas rucksack and pulling on his huge grey overcoat. I was too tired to explain, to protest. I nearly started to cry with relief as I shut the door behind him.

I loved having my flat to myself, it felt safe and cocoon-like so much so I often forgot that people in other flats might be able to see in as I could see into theirs. I forgot to close the curtains when I got undressed at night and would remember with a start. I liked lying on my bed looking up at the blue sky and the plane tree, a view to look into rather than at, a view that allowed me to daydream and drift thoughtlessly as if stoned.


When we first started going out he would leave things in my flat. He started by leaving pie packets and empty, plastic flavoured-milk bottles. He would forget to eat and then when he became aware of being hungry he would get me to pull into a garage and he'd buy a steak and kidney pie and a Bar One. Later her progressed to leaving a sweater, his coat, books, a toothbrush, his razor and shaving cream, coffee beans that he would grind to make coffee in the morning.

One time he left half a bottle of red wine that I knew I'd never drink. I hadn't got that clever tip from Nigella yet about freezing wine, even bits from people's glasses, which means you always have handy bits of wine to cook with. He'd leave bottles of Stolichnaya in my freezer. I took to having a couple of shots of vodka most nights, even if he wasn't there.

Over the couple of years we were together he often phoned in sick to work, "Hi Busi, I've got a stomach bug, sorry hey, I'm sure I'll be fine tomorrow. OK, thanks."

Louis's anger spilled over and poisoned things. He was one of the men who got onto the carousel with me, circling longer than most, till we were both dizzy and freaked out. We were all trying to find meaning beyond what constituted our lives – work, money, sex, politics, friendship, jorls, angst-filled phone calls, daily life.


Soon after we broke up, I went to the UK on a work trip, I'd asked my friend, Frank to take me to the airport. Frank and I were having a last minute cup of tea, when I heard Louis shout from the street. I looked over the balcony there was his car. "Oh fuck, it's him. I told him you were taking me." I threw the front door key over the balcony and waited. He didn't have a key anymore.

Frank and I were too submissive to argue. We went to the kitchen to make tea while he sat in the lounge. We tried to avoid eye contact, as we were afraid of bursting into hysterical laughter. We turned on the radio. "I think I'd better go," he said. I nodded.

I sat in the front seat of Louis' white Pulsar, eyes fixed on the view moving by through the windscreen. I was tight and anxious, we'd already driven all over Edenvale looking for a petrol station. He'd insisted on taking me to the airport and then we almost ran out of petrol on the way there. "Typical!" I thought angrily. All the while my inner clock was ticking so loudly I felt my head might explode and my heart burst. Proximity to him brought on this kind of tension. No longer the easy-going, carefree laughing young woman that I knew and loved.

"I hate you, and when I get back from London in two weeks' time, if I never see you again it won't be too soon. Why did I let you bully me? I would have much preferred to have Frank drop me off, it would have been fun." Light industrial showrooms and billboards whizzed by. I was glad he couldn't read my thoughts.

"So shall I come and fetch you from the airport?"

"No, it's fine, Frank is already."

"Oh, but," he looked hurt.

"No, really it's too much to ask. You've already had to take this morning off work. I'll see you when I get back. Thanks hey." I pecked him on the cheek, grabbed my bag, "Better go, I might miss my plane." I waved gaily, ignoring the fog of anger and hurt surrounding him. "Bye…" I didn't turn around to see what he was doing and little by little I felt myself relax as I hurried to International Departures.


One of the last things we did together was go to Chris Hani's funeral at Els Park cemetery in Boksburg. We went on a hired bus with other people from the Yeoville ANC. There were hardly any white people at the cemetery. We stood at the side of the road and waited for the hearse and cortege to come past. People were toyi-toying and singing freedom songs. Helicopters flew around, like large menacing dragonflies. There was a heavy police presence. I was afraid that something might go wrong, the police might start shooting.

We got back to Yeoville without incident, feeling heavy with history, we went dancing at Tandoor with a crowd of people and we all got totally pissed. Louis and I eventually stumbled back to my flat at about three in the morning.


I lie down, a migraine is crushing me like the teeth of the rubbish truck. I've been brought to my knees, to my bed, curled up, head pushed into the pillow, the room is dark, I'm in the throes of something, enduring it, painkillers lap at the edges of the pain, and mercifully begin to unlock the rigid tension, the thudding recedes to a distant building site rather than right in the room with me. I sleep dreamlessly. Afterwards I always wonder what they are for, migraines, they are like entering a sangoma's cave, where it is dark and it hurts, I'm a supplicant before a jealous god.

Louis is a jealous god, well he's not a god, of course, but does he know it? His jealousy pure and startling rules my days. I try to trick him, distract him from my disloyal heart that doesn't love him in the way he demands. It's at the centre of the problem for both of us. How do I leave him? I'm trapped in the headlights of his jealous adoration. Of course it isn't real adoration. Actually I don't want to find out what real adoration is, surely it would be too desperate and unnecessary. So I lie on the bed, dreamlessly, for once not thinking about the maze I'm blundering around in, trying to find my way out of. The sheets are cool, the fan whirrs softly. I've unplugged the phone and put the door on the chain. I'm safely alone in the quiet dark, living out these few hours in quiet restorative sleep. When I wake up, I keep my eyes closed and watch myself lying quietly on the bed as though I was my own guardian angel.


One night months after Hani's funeral, Louis phoned me, it was late, I was asleep, his voice was muffled and distant, "What's wrong?" I asked.

"I'm stoned, I'll phone again later." He put the phone down. He didn't phone again. I saw him a few days after that, he was bizarre, tense, cold, punishing. He wanted all his stuff back and he asked for the money I owed him.


I stayed with him because I felt I had all the time in the world, I wasn't aware of my short life passing, the urgency of it, at the time I didn't feel like I was wasting time, barking up the wrong tree.

Eventually Louis and I broke up so finally that we both knew we'd broken up. Suddenly I never saw him around, it was as though he was hibernating or had left town. But I knew he hadn't.

A space opened up for me where before everything had been closed tightly like the lid on a jar of mayonnaise.


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