It was the very recent death of his mother that emerged in him during this time, this fleeing from snow-swept China.
Now in New Zealand, he felt his creative fingertips for the first time in months. He re-discovered the warmth of Marion’s hands and laugh again, the hearth which had always been there, the arms which held him on a pillow – or was that his mother who had just died?
In China, shortly before he and Marion bolted, he remembered sitting up in shock sometime in the night, and Marion telling him of an elderly woman standing in the corner, looking across at them. Stuttering, a child again, he asked Marion to describe the woman, and shivered. The portrait was his mother: the hunch from osteoporosis, the way she smiled with chin trembling, the teeth showing above the drooping lower lip as she gleamed with dark eyes at her boy; her musical voice, the voice of a five-year-old’s mouth near another phone, murmuring goodbye Roddy, goodbye Roddy.
* * *
You know how passport control officers the world over are taught to say, “Welcome home”, upon your arrival back in your country? It’s like the police saying, “We are sorry for your loss”, when reporting the death of a loved one, dead words making little attempt to heal the heart. For now, all I had of the news of my mother’s approaching death, and then of her “going home” (as her Christian friends would say), were emails.
We stood in Auckland airport, almost tottering before the silver-haired, New Zealand immigration officer, after a twelve hour flight and two days on the run. And roughly eight years of being nomads from South Africa. Managing a grin in my mind, I imagined the silhouette of a sickle behind him. For so long we had been country-less, at the mercy of petty officialdom. That silhouette behind the silvery officer was sharpened by my last (and very first), nightmarish experience of China …
Kunshan, near Shanghai, January 6 2013, 5am: Marion and I got up to flee. As the apartment block our terrible company had put us in had company Chinese staff in other apartments, I was wary about them – such spies – seeing us leave with our luggage on a working day.
We stumbled down the concrete steps from our apartment, which was right next to a garbage dump. We’d been living in a slum. I found an illegal taxi, a driver who disconnected his meter and shoved it into the cubby hole. Speaking Mandarin, I negotiated a reasonable fare. The next day we would be catching a flight straight to Auckland: the distance from Kunshan to Shanghai meant we needed to stay overnight in a Shanghai hotel to ensure we got to Pudong Airport on time.
I feared missing the flight. I feared the snow delaying our flight and our company trying to cancel our residency visas before we got past the airport departures police. Never in my life had I felt such fright; my eyes were myopic from anxiety. I was battling to read road signs. (One text message from our abusive company received that day was a threat that they were calling the police.)
Marion, stoic as ever, chattered away to me in the taxi about nostalgic sites we passed as the taxi sped to that spectacular hulk, Shanghai … to hell with all that Rod, enjoy watching the snow pile past the windows, a serene white death on the passing willows and the frozen canals, almost emblematic of the passing away of a mostly amazing seven years in China.
The taxi driver, used to his Kunshan dialect, suddenly decided to tell me in his thick Mandarin he didn’t actually know the way to Puxi in Shanghai. He was going to drop me off on the outskirts of Puxi where a cabby mate of his would take us to the hotel. I didn’t know whether to laugh or become more fearful. Bugger all this, laugh it off. I demanded a decrease in the fare because of the inconvenience. Old to this game, the driver reassured me but also refused to budge on the price.
* * *
We spent our last day drifting from haunt to nostalgic haunt in Puxi. An area composed more of people than high-rises, throngs thick as mist. A city’s peopled streets a necklace jangling on a pair of sweaty breasts. We had lived for years in this city, like a pair of backsides moulding the wood on a favourite park bench. Shanghai: Another place we can no longer call home, or sweeten her face with our touch, a face that may once have known that we belonged, had permission to explore intimate places.
* * *
Thump. The Kiwi Immigrations rubber stamp plunging down onto our passports. It only took a few seconds for the official to decide to do this. The kindly immigration officer looked up at our gaping mouths with a smile, a character out of The Hobbit, the movie advertised everywhere in Auckland airport. “Welcome home,” he said to us, nodding warmly. I could see in his gentleness he could see how shattered we looked. “Is that all??” I blurted, used to endless red tape. He smiled reassuringly.
The words reverberated, peeling open my heart. We were being told, for the first time in many years, that the land we were about to enter was home.
* * *
… her incredibly childlike, musical voice, its light now the purest, welling through her words. And her lips, untouched, pursed against a phone, whispering goodbye Roddy, bye-bye my boy. In his heart snow drifted like guilt over that recent funeral in Fish Hoek he was unable to attend. We were busy running away, Mommy. Just so busy running away. To have held your hand for that last time.
Can China and South Africa be so easily forgotten, a phone put down, two countries switched off with a click?