All things bright and br.., p.1

All Things Bright and Broken, page 1


All Things Bright and Broken

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All Things Bright and Broken

  All Things Bright and Broken

  “This story of a dysfunctional family, a debut novel told in the first person by a deeply perceptive and compassionate writer new to the South African market, is raw, funny and extremely moving. It is a totally satisfying read and a fine achievement.”


  “Like a rediscovered box of haberdashery remnants – ribbon shreds and lace, frayed cotton, stretched elastic – the nostalgia here evokes a conflicting assortment of emotions. Tender, touching and troubling all at the same time. A poignant reminder of the impact of parenting on a person’s psyche – for better and for worse.”


  “Lionel Trilling said: ‘Of this time, of that place, of some parentage, what does it matter?’ It matters. This book could only have come from a specific time, place and parentage and it is one not much written of. Carol brings everything in her phenomenal memory back with crystal clarity.”





  First published by Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd in 2018

  10 Orange Street


  Auckland Park 2092

  South Africa

  +2711 628 3200

  © Carol Gibbs, 2018

  All rights reserved.

  d-PDF 978-1-4314-2728-4

  ePUB 978-1-4314-2729-1

  mobi file 978-1-4314-2730-7

  Cover design by publicide

  Front cover photograph of peeking girl: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USZ62-108765]

  Sketches © Carol Gibbs

  Editing by Sean Fraser

  Proofreading by Megan Mance

  Job no. 003286

  While we have tried to obtain all necessary permissions for quotations and photographs, we have not always been successful. All missing credits will be added to future impressions.

  See a complete list of Jacana titles at

  For my mother, may her dear soul rest in peace,


  for my beloved children,

  who have added grace to this planet,


  for my family, every one of them





























  Although autobiographical in tone, here I intertwine fact and fiction. Memory and imagination go hand in hand. I have changed all names, including my own, and in some instances have even changed physical attributes. Many of the events have filtered down to me from older children, cousins, aunts and neighbours.

  At the time, we were innocents brainwashed by a cruel system and so became a product of our time. Although the world has moved on – thankfully – my childhood was plagued by confusion at the world around me. Mystified, I spent my time observing the adults and the odd assortment of characters who touched my life. There were betrayals, disappointments and many tears, but there were also sympathetic neighbours, loving aunts and caring grandmothers.

  Battered families can look normal to the rest of the world. They present a brave face, but behind closed doors it’s a different matter altogether. No one knows when the next disaster will strike or where it will end. There can be joy one minute and tears the next, and home can be the most dangerous place on earth. It’s a little like being cast in a movie, only not a soul knows the plot. The children are players in a complicated game that leaves them with a cruel blueprint for life.

  Sexual abuse affects every part of the victim’s life, harming the soul and the psyche, and, for children, destroys the very core of innocence. Living with secrets and guarded silence becomes the norm. Relationships are skewed and there’s bound to be some form of self-abuse. Family members display the worst and best of attributes; on one hand there is dishonesty, manipulation, self-deception and procrastination; on the other hand a fierce loyalty, great courage and fortitude.

  Along the same lines, families living with an alcoholic or binge-drinker become co-dependants. Living with dysfunctional behavioural patterns means that family members become super alert, hyper vigilant. They become experts at scanning facial expressions and nothing escapes their attention, not even the nuances of light and shade that make up their day. These children remain alert through every conversation and every situation, looking for the smallest sign of dissatisfaction and the ramifications, particularly physical punishment. Eventually, the result is that they are out of touch with their own needs and emotions.

  It is, however, too easy to lay blame at the feet of the parents; dysfunctional family behaviour is not something parents fabricate in one generation. Parents had parents too. Some people skip through life. Others pay the price.

  A child who suffers hostile life circumstances is open to lack of self-esteem and confidence, to anxiety, fearfulness and immaturity. The emotional roller-coaster ride leads to frequent tears, nightmares and nervousness, leaving the child sucked dry, bogged down by paralysing fears and undirected anger. This story is seen through the eyes of a child, written from the heart, warts and all. Read it with your heart.

  The unexamined life is not worth living.

  – Plato

  Jacob Le Seuer was born in 1906 on an apple farm in the Grabouw district of the Western Cape. He opened his eyes to a wide blue sky surrounded by hills awash with a froth of delicate pink apple blossoms. Growing up here he caught eels by lamplight in the Palmiet River and developed a passion for the birds of the air. With a shock of black wavy hair falling across his forehead, he was an exceptionally handsome man and always immaculately turned out. He was thirty years old when Mavis met him and he was quite the man about town. Some people called him a poser.

  In 1915, Mavis Lourens was born in Cape Town, in the shadow of Table Mountain where the tablecloth drapes itself magically over the top. As a young woman, she was blonde and beautiful, vulnerable, long-legged, with a sweater-girl figure that earned wolf-whistles and calls of “Hubba hubba!” Jacob and Mavis met at a party in the northern suburbs of the city. She was captivated by his charm and fell head over heels in love. And so their fate was sealed, the start of a co-dependant relationship.



  Desiree slams her hand on the picture as her shout rings out over the quiet back yard. We’re sitting on the back steps of our house in Sir George Grey Street. Gabriel is turning the pages of an Outspan magazine.


  “Nine all.”

  Gabriel is the eldest and he keeps the peace between us. He slaps his hand on an advertisement that shows a woman in a bust bodice.

  “Mine!” he giggles.

  My hand comes down in a flash.


  I have my hand on a building jutting out into the sea.

  “Where’s this?”

  “Let’s ask Mommy,” says Desiree.

  We find Mommy wiping the washing line with a cloth.

  “Where’s this, Mommy?

  “The pier.” Mommy gets a faraway look in her eyes. “It’s called the pier. It was at the bottom of Adderley Street … It had pretty gas lamps that looked like the ones in Paris. You want to see some photographs?”

  Mommy wipes her hands on her big white apron and we traipse behind her in single file into the kitchen. “Get my memory box from the top of the wardrobe.”

  We settle around the kitchen table.

  “Look, here’s a snap of me promenading with my beau!”

  “What’s promenading?”

  “What’s a beau?”

  “On Sundays we dressed in our best and strolled up and down the pier with our boyfriends.”

  We peer over her shoulder. Mommy and the man have their arms linked. She has her eyes fixed on his face and she’s smiling. It’s a black-and-white photograph, but we know she has beautiful thick blonde hair and the bluest eyes, the colour of the forget-me-nots growing in our garden.

  “What’s his name?”

  “Frank Hall. Isn’t he handsome?”

  Mommy looks sad, although she is smiling.

  “Why didn’t you marry him?”

  “It’s a long story.”

  “Where did you meet Daddy?” asks Gabriel.

  “At a party in Parow.”

  “Where was your wedding?”

  “We got married in the magistrate’s court in Cape Town. I wore a blue two-piece and a hat.”

  “Did you get any presents?”

  “Only a few pillow slips,” laughs Mommy. “Even new, they were so thin you could shoot peas through them.”

  Desiree is still staring at the photograph. “Didn’t your legs get tired? Walking up and down the pier, I mean.”

  “No, you could sit down and listen to beautiful music played on a baby grand piano.”

  “Is that like the piano in Aunty Gertruida’s house, the one that’s played by a ghost?”

  “No,” Mommy smiles, “Aunty Gertruida’s piano is called a pianola.” And then she says, “I wanted to be a concert pianist.”

  “Why didn’t you?”


  “What does that mean?”

  “It doesn’t matter.” She pushes her chair out and stands up. “I have to hang up the washing or it’ll never get dry. Hold the photographs by the edges so you don’t leave finger marks in the middle.”

  Mommy looks as though she’s in a bit of a huff.

  “What have I done?” I ask, but nobody takes any notice.

  Desiree takes over Mommy’s chair. “Look at this one.”

  It’s a picture of our mommy with her five sisters. “It looks like they’re promenading.”

  They are striding along arm in arm, wearing pretty dresses made by my grandmother.

  Mommy comes back from the washing line. “Put the photographs back in the box.”

  “Please, Mommy, tell us who comes first.”

  “First there’s Ruby. Then Aunty Catherine-Jean, then there’s Mavis. That’s me, May.”

  I say the name May. It sounds funny to be saying my mommy’s name.

  “Then there’s Rita, Katarina and Bubbles. See, you’ve got four fingers left over.”

  “What about Uncle Charles?”

  We always forget about Uncle Charles, because he’s the only boy. My grandmother loves to tell the story of his birth. He was so small they couldn’t find him and he had to sleep in a shoebox. Everyone came to see the miracle baby just like baby Jesus in the Bible. His skin was so thin that you could see the veins carrying his blood round and round and throbbing in his head where the hole wouldn’t close. He had to stay bare because there were no clothes to fit him. He had no fingernails or eyelashes. His toenails were still soft like jelly. When Grandma tells the part about the jelly I feel sick. And then, when he was old enough to walk, they noticed he had a funny foot, but they were just glad that it wasn’t his head that was funny.

  Mommy is over her huff, and it’s not hard to get her to tell us about the olden days.

  Her grandfather had a shop in Leeuwen Street, in the Bo-Kaap, and she could have as many sweets as her tummy could hold. My mommy and her brother and sisters were born above her father’s own shop, the one in Wandel Street. Before she even started school, she had to mind the shop and if a customer came in she had to shout “Shop! Shop!” at the top of her lungs. Then Grandpa would come scurrying back. Mommy talks about the Sea Point Pavilion, hansom cabs and picnics in Bains Kloof. But most of all she talks about the pier at the bottom of Adderley Street.

  “You know you were born the year the pier came down?” says Mommy, looking at me. “At the Booth Memorial Hospital, in Upper Orange Street, same as Gabriel.”

  “Tell about the skinny legs,” says Gabriel.

  “The scale tipped at five pounds. Colleen was born with skinny legs, like knife handles, and weak ankles. That’s why she has to wear boots.”

  Gabriel laughs.

  “She can’t help it,” Mommy scolds my brother.

  “And what about your bullet-shaped head?” Desiree reminds Gabriel.

  “He can’t help that either.”

  “What about me?” asks Desiree. “Where was I born?”

  “It was New Year’s Eve and we were having a big party at our house in Parow. The midwife barely made it.”

  “Why was she at the party?”

  “She came to bring you into the world. And do you know what she said when you were born? She said your baby girl has danced into the world on the night of so many parties. She’ll be fleet of foot and spread her magic wherever she goes.”

  “Tell us more!”

  “Desiree was born with beautiful deep dimples. And now Gabriel has beautiful even white teeth and Colleen has the most beautiful curly blonde hair. But never mind about all of that,” she mutters as she packs the last photo back in the box.


  Daddy’s home.

  “Mavis, we’ve been sent to Pretoria.”

  “But where will we stay?”

  “We’ll find a boarding house and the Public Works Department will pay.”

  And so Mommy gives up her job and packs the pillow slips you can shoot peas through. We travel on the train all the way to Pretoria and then we climb into a taxi.

  “Take us to Haddon Hall,” Daddy tells the man.

  Mommy goes shopping.

  “Sit at the window,” she says, “and watch the blossoms fall from the trees. They’re called jacarandas. You’ll see, soon they’ll lie in great purple heaps, thick as carpets on the pavements.”

  We watch the cars skid on the slippery petals and then, suddenly, big balls of hail tumble from the sky.

  “Chicken Licken better watch out for his head,” says Gabriel.

  The Pretoria Zoo becomes our favourite place and we make new friends at the boarding house. We have delicious food, served by a big black lady in a white apron and cap, and pudding with every meal. Daddy learns to love toast and marmalade. We’ve never heard of marmalade before. Daddy says it’s British. “Only two weeks to go before we leave Pretoria for Cape Town,” says Daddy. “We’d better find somewhere to stay.”

  “Ruby’s found a house for us in Third Avenue in Crawford, near Rondebosch. She knows the Cape Flats like the back of her hand. Aunty Ruby says it’s a sad house, all closed up, and it needs some life, some young happy voices.”

  And before we know what’s happening, the time has come for Gabriel to leave his new school and we’re packing up again. We have to leave the jacarandas, the zoo and the hailstones too.

  Before we move into the sad house in Third Avenue, we stay with his mother, our ouma, i
n her house in Parow, so Daddy has to stay sober. The postman brings Aunty Ruby’s letter, thick as a book. Mommy reads the last bit aloud as we crowd around her knees.

  There’s Berg’s and Chong the Chinaman in Taronga Road, and an Indian trader, a babbie, Mr Abdullah. There’s another babbie on your side of the line. The school and the church are both in Fourth Avenue and the nearest doctor is Dr West, on the corner of Kromboom and Milner Roads in Rondebosch, not too far for emergencies. There’s Plax Chemist and the Kritz Bioscope, both in Lansdowne. The coloureds live in a place called Mossienes, including Edna. She’s a servant girl I’ve organised for you. Everyone knows her because she has blue-blue eyes. She’s probably the envy of the neighbourhood. I hope you are all well. Love, Ruby and Norman.

  P.S. I won’t offer to meet you. I can only take Jacob in small doses. You know how I feel about his goings on.

  “Why doesn’t Aunty Ruby want to see Daddy?” Gabriel’s eyes are as wide as one of Ouma’s saucers.

  Mommy pauses before she answers.

  “Because she belongs to the South African Party, Jannie Smuts’s Party, she is a Sap and Daddy is a NAT because he is a National Party supporter and if they meet they end up arguing about politics.”

  Aunty Ruby comes to visit at Ouma’s house while Daddy is at work.

  “Please don’t let on to Jacob about Mossienes,” Mommy says to Aunty Ruby.

  “Ruby’s directions are spot on,” says Mommy without looking at Daddy as we walk from the station. “Look at our house!”

  Desiree and Gabriel run to the gate and squabble over who gets to lift the latch. Mommy forgets to let go of my hand, so I can’t budge. We are so lucky. Because the house stands all on its own, we have a wide, wild field to play on. The curved path snakes from the front gate to the red polished stoep. The grandest part of the house is the two tall pillars holding up the stoep roof.

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