‘Blue Dress’ – a Father’s Day story

The night before she was due to fly to Lusaka, a southern hemisphere winter gale was blowing in. She wondered whether the gale would prevent her flight from taking off the next morning. She was about to fly to Zambia, to see her father, who had had a second – maybe it was his third – stroke. They had not spoken with ease for many years. She thought it was probably her last chance to see him before he died.

She had spent weeks fretting over what she should take with her. Gifts are an important part of negotiating a return for an Asian in Africa – the traditions of both Africans and South Asians dictate that one return laden with gifts that show gratitude, and provide for one’s family from the wealth gained from one’s travels. What could a prodigal like her take that says not over-affluence, or, worse, guilt? Too much would communicate a message about an arrogance she didn’t have – years of eking it out on her own before finding steady employment had left her with a humility so deeply etched that even her sisters, ever attuned for a hint of boastfulness, wondered at her lack of pride. Too little? That wasn’t even an option.

What could she get in South Africa, in Cape Town, that they could not in Zambia? What does one take from the cities of gold and beach-beauties, where she was situated now, to the sleepy town built on copper, in which she grew up? South African goods flooded Zambia’s shops. People up north thought of South Africa as a pulsing metropolis full of money-making opportunities, material goods, fashionable clothing, good times, and possibility.

In the end, she bought chocolates – pounds of sugar-free chocolates for her diabetic father from a man who sold “fair-trade” artisanal chocolates at the posh weekend market that white Capetonians frequented, wearing their casual-Saturday best – and cheeses from little farm stands in the Cape countryside. And a jar of Cape gooseberry jam, which she knew her sisters would like. A sweater for whoever wanted it. A face cream for her mother, who, despite her years, retained her fine skin and vanity.

She packed her carry-on, one that was large enough to take all the gifts she’d bought, but small enough that it would be allowed on the plane. It had a retractable handle and wheels so she could wheel it easily, and red accents sewn around the piping that made it easy to identify on the luggage carousel. Then she took everything out of her bags and repacked several times over – so that all the chocolate fit in just that much more tidily. The cheeses waited in sealed plastic bags in the fridge, waiting to be packed in the morning.

*

A couple of weeks earlier, she sat in Stefan Blom’s blue couch on a rare sunny afternoon, looking at the small painting of a Buddhist monk he’d recently purchased from an artist. Japanese ink and watercolour outlined the shape of a beatific face, which frowned a little in concentration. Those closed eyes, shaded under those furrowed eyebrows, saw beyond the immediacy of present suffering. It takes discipline and practice to reach serenity, she thought.
“I don’t know whether to go,” she said. “My sister sent me an email in May, saying that he’d had a stroke again. She said, ‘I thought you should know.’ I hadn’t spoken to my father in seven years.”
“What did you do?”

“I rang him. I only rang to speak to him out of duty.”

“What was that like?”
“Silences. He said, ‘I am sick.’”

“How did you respond?”

“I just said, ‘I know.’”
“Would you have liked to say anything else?”
“I wanted to tell him, ‘You are sick because of your own actions.’”

The room was chilly, but she felt herself beginning to sweat through her long sleeved t-shirt. Houses in Southern Africa are not heated, and it means that one remains bundled up in layers of woollens even when indoors, unless one was lucky enough to have a fireplace in the room. Stefan’s office was cool even in the summers; it faced the mountain and sits in the shadow of granite in the late afternoon. Yet there were wet beads on her forearms, large, moist patches seeping through her clothes, under her arms and knees. She took off her outer layer of woollens and scarf, and laid them next to her on the couch.

She kept sitting there – in this gentle man’s room in which so many confessed their fears – thinking that if Stefan hadn’t been a man who wore stylishly cut shirts, patterned socks that peaked under perfectly hemmed trousers, one might mistake the the monk’s face in the painting to be his, when he was a younger man.

“I want to find an excuse to not go. For something to happen so that I do not have to see them.”

“What do you think creates this barrier between you, and whatever is there, where you call home? What does your father mean to you, and what is family?”

“I am a relief valve. They are looking to me to provide a way out – magically make the latest crisis disappear. With an infusion of cash.”

Her sweat had begun to evaporate off her thin shirt, and she could feel the heat leaving her body as each drop gathered the energy on the top layers of her skin and dissipated into the air. She began shivering.

“My mother says to me, ‘Ah, oya panala giya, netha?’ The literal translation of those words is, ‘You escaped, isn’t that so?’ But the words ‘panala giya’ have connotations that bring up images of an animal that escapes its pen – somehow unlocks a latch meant to keep it in – and gets away.”
She was now so cold that her whole torso was trembling. She held her arms together to try to stop herself from shaking, but it wasn’t possible. She put her sweater on again, but her teeth were chattering and she could not speak any longer. She slipped to the floor beside the couch, brought her knees to her chin, made herself into a curl.

Stefan got up from his seat, and wrapped her shawl around her.

*

From her flat in Vredehoek, she could see down the mountain to the sea. Waves were rolling in, spattering into the rocks. She could feel the enormity of the water’s roaring approach even though she was half way up the mountain. She was pacing in the flat, looking out into the sea, and contemplating whether she should have purchased more presents. What Sri Lankan daughter went home without bulging, thirty-kilo bags that barely passed the airline’s permitted luggage limit?

She decided to get out of the flat – better than standing there, pacing, packing and repacking. She’d received a text, reminding her that Albie Sachs was going to read from his new memoir, The Strange Alchemy of Life and the Law at the local bookstore that night. By the time she wrapped herself up against the cold and left the flat, the Cape of Storms was dressed in fog from Table Mountain to the seashore. As she navigated her Citi Golf down the mountain, rain began to blow down. The dips in the road were filled with torrents. She parked her car on Barrack Street, wrapped her wool shawl around her head, ran through sheets of falling water to the corner of Roeland and Buitenkant, and stepped into the bookstore. It was already full of people, munching on goat cheese and fig preserve crudités made by the bookstore’s staff, here to glory in the days when the struggle against apartheid made delineating between good and evil an easier task than it was now.

She’d read about Albie Sachs, the firebrand lawyer who’d defended those charged under apartheid era’s security laws, and eventually had to go into exile in Mozambique. Mozambique, the coastal nation to the right of South Africa, was one of the central locations from which the anti-apartheid struggle took place. But South African security forces found him; an instrument of the state rigged a bomb in his car, which went off as Sachs opened the door to the car. He lost his eyesight in the left eye, and his right arm. After the end of apartheid, Mandela appointed Sachs to the Constitutional Court, and the one-armed judge made it his mission to ensure that the Court set aside funds for public art, so that people would remember that a curtailed body could still be expressive.

Everyone there at the bookshop, except the man who introduced Sachs, was white. She found a seat at the back, shook out the rain from her shawl, and listened. She stayed through all the questions people asked Sachs, and bought his book, waiting at the very end of the line for him to sign it. On the cover of the book was an image of a blue dress, painted against a primrose-yellow background. The dress’ flowing fabric filled out, making it look as though there was an invisible person wearing it. The way it was shaped made her think of a confident woman, striding forward in a breeze. When she got to Sachs, his tired left hand – still unused to the task of writing – scrawled her name and a thank you note on the first page. On his right side, the sleeve of his grey sweater was pinned up neatly. She saw that it was empty from above the elbow.

*

The next morning, her anxiety about making it to the airport on time was at such a pitch that she woke up at 3:30. She had more than enough time: the flight was scheduled to leave the gate at 6AM, and the drive from her flat to the airport would only take thirty minutes. But she took too much time getting ready. She could have jumped out of her pyjamas and into jeans, but she prepared herself elaborately for the journey. The result: she was almost late to check in to her flight. The check-in attendant wanted to take her bag, which she’d hoped not to send unaccompanied. The plane was too full already, he said. There was no time to argue. There went her little bag, full of chocolate and aged sheep’s cheese, the last to go down the conveyor. She sprinted down the long hallway of Cape Town International with her satchel flying behind her, and plunked into her seat just as the door to the plane was sealed shut. Her carefully styled hair and makeup were in disarray.

In her satchel was Albie Sachs’ book. That, her laptop, her identity documents, and a small pencil case.

*

She arrived in the Copperbelt – in the familiar, one-room Ndola airport 30 miles from where Dag Hammarskjold’s small plane was brought down – to find that her large checked-in bag was sent to Luanda, Angola: Luanda’s airport code is LAD; Lusaka’s is LUN; for some baggage handler, the letters must have blurred together in the early morning, in the roar of the Cape wind and black waves. Doubtless, he had travelled farther than she in order to get to his place of work, and had a more arduous journey every morning from the slums surrounding Cape Town.

But at that moment, she had little sympathy for the historical conditions that separated her privileges from her errant baggage-handler’s daily struggle. She stepped into the business of engaging with the Zambian airport bureaucracy, going from pleading to threatening to lying (“I brought medication for my father’s diabetes in that bag!” she exclaimed haughtily, when in actuality, her precious cargo contained five pounds each of chocolates and cheeses).

She turned around to speak to another official, and there was her father. Instantly recognisable, but diminished – the old black pompadour of curls that made him dapper in the ’60s, candy to the European women amongst whom he mingled, now thin enough that she could see his scalp, eyes rheumy with cataracts that Zambian healthcare in the post-Kenneth Kaunda years couldn’t be trusted to remove.

She had Albie Sach’s memoir, and not much else. Even her toothbrush was in the bag that went to Luanda. She’d arrived without the ceremonial gifts – meant to appease the unease created by a long absence, to cover up what should not be said. She stood there, without the armour with which she’d hoped to shield herself.

She resorted to the ceremonial: she knelt down to touch his feet. The room full of airport officials gawped. Zambians are not afraid of taking a good look. Her father did what the gracious South Asian patriarch must: he made the companion ceremonial gesture to stop her from kneeling fully. But his was more than gesture; he summoned up enough strength to clutch her shoulders, so that she was forced to abandon ceremony, and embrace him. He sealed his cheek, mouth, nose to her face, drew a deep breath – she could hear it – and inhaled her.

*

The next morning at her parents’ home, she did her usual practice: that of the daughter who does not know what to do with intimacy. She sat in the sun, coffee in hand, and read. The Strange Alchemy of the Life and Law – another man’s life-story – was going to be her escape in these weeks with her family. Her father’s cats were curled around her on the verandah, eating the winter sun. She’d passed him in the kitchen, surreptitiously feeding them choice pieces of yesterday’s chicken (he winked conspiratorially at her while turning on the kitchen tap to rinse the heat of the sauce from chunks of meat, which he’d carefully separated from the bones). Here was a still life that hadn’t, on the surface, changed much in twenty years.

She was sitting there, reading, when her father came to the verandah with his arm outstretched. He extended his palm towards her, and wrinkled his face in pain. He had a splinter in his hand. She went to her carry-on bag, and dug around in the pencil case: she’d lost all the gifts she bought, but she had just the right tool for this job. There they were, eyebrow tweezers. Her father sat next to her, and she positioned his hand in the sunlight. She squeezed the flesh around the small brown tell-tale of the splinter, so that its end peeked out.

“Oh!” he cried out, jerking his hand a little.

She clamped the eyebrow tweezers around the visible tip, and pulled out a long hair of wood lodged deep in his palm. She laid it on the desk next to the bed.
She didn’t have anything much to say, so she showed him Sachs’ book, and told him the story of the blue dress, and about the artist, Judith Mason, who stitched the dress out of blue plastic shopping bags. Then she read artist’s introduction to Sach’s memoir. Her father was holding her hand.

“This is the story of a goon who sang in order to be absolved, and a woman who kept silent.”

“During the Truth Commission Hearings, the artist heard, on the radio, a security goon speaking about a woman that he and his men tortured, a woman who covered her tortured nakedness with a discarded blue plastic bag that was in a corner of the cell, and endured the final gunshot to her head bravely. As he told the story to the commission, the goon sniggered, remembering Phila Ndwandwe’s bravery, and how she would not speak nor inform on her comrades, no matter how they tortured her. In the end, they still killed her. When her body was finally disinterred during the Truth Commission hearings, the blue plastic bag was still clinging to her pelvis, her sole companion in death.”

Her father was grasping her hand tighter, and his eyes were wide open.

“When the artist heard this story on the radio during the hearings, she said to herself, ‘Sissy, I wish I could sew you a dress.’ She left her home to collect discarded plastic bags, and using them, she stitched a blue dress. It was sleeveless and simple, but she added a ruffled border to it. It was beautiful, even though it was made from what people had thrown away.”

Hearing a radio report about the tortured woman who kept silent, but fashioned a pair of panties with a blue plastic shopping bag – an act that spoke of her dignity – drove Judith Mason, the artist, out of the safe enclave of home, and the protections that her whiteness granted her, and into that risky place of shame and sorrow. Outside the hallowed halls of South Africa’s Constitutional Court, memorials to the courage it took for Phila Ndwandwe not to speak are everywhere, in the places that ordinary people go to buy their daily groceries, and around their homes, where throwaway blue bags caught in chain-link fencing tell tales we do not want to remember. The artist saw that these memorials to Phila Ndwandwe’s bravery are easily discarded. But they were also reliquaries at which her courage could be remembered. “Memorials to your courage are everywhere; they blow about in the streets and drift in the tide and cling to thorn-bushes,” wrote the artist, and painted these words in white on the border of the blue dress, in neat, cursive letters. Justice Sachs saw the dress that the artist made, and asked if it could be placed in the South African Constitutional Court in Johannesburg.

She read the words of the artist out loud to her father, and wrote them into her heart.

She told her father about how some people thought others were like refuse – something to be discarded. But she learned that some people’s dignity was stubborn.

It stayed around, like plastic.

Her father was weeping. Since his stroke, she was told, he weeps when he feels great emotion, or cannot express the depth of what he feels.

She said, “Papa, do you know you taught me freedom? And every day, I am changed by that gift.”

He put his face in his hands. She put her palms against the back of his hands. They were both weeping, she and her father.

She could not quite say why, but that it had something to do with them both wanting, in their very different trajectories, something similar. Her father’s life decisions meant that his hopes and goals went unmet, and she rejected him for the foolishness of his decisions, and for the burden he placed on her to make them come to fruition. On his part, her father wanted her to simply return – which, she supposed, is an indication of understanding, of the hopes he had for her, and acceptance of what she chose instead. She was still walking towards forgiving him for the enormity of his failures.

That woman, Phila Ndwandwe, though security goons silenced her, keeps speaking. She helped a white artist speak about her abiding shame. Then she helped Albie Sachs, a one-armed judge who himself lost his arm in a bomb meant to end his life, to speak to a generation of South Africans disillusioned with the grand stories of struggle activists. And then, that man with one arm, and a woman with one plastic bag, and an artist who felt shame for her people’s brutality gave her some words that helped a prodigal daughter speak to her father.

But she knew that Phila – love – died because a nation of goons tortured and killed her. Phila didn’t die because there was a moral to be gleaned from her death, a lesson, or a reason. And she knew that no pretty story was going to release the horror of those days in which Phila lay down on a concrete torture chamber floor covered in urine, shit, and blood.

This isn’t a story of redemption.

As a young college student, she wrote her first creative essay: blaming her father, screaming her pain at him, and asking for understanding and forgiveness. She never sent it. She is still writing versions of that first essay. In South Africa, she learnt that some believe that since “truth” was spoken, forgiveness should be “given” and all should walk into a future free of the past. Her own act of repetition tells her that the granting of forgiveness, and requesting it are repetitive acts, never to be completed in a lifetime.

They – she and her father– are still asking and giving.

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Neelika Jayawardane

Sharp-tongued literature professor. She is on the editorial board of Africa is a Country.

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