During one of the school holidays, while I was at home for three years (Jan 1953 – Dec 1955), Gerry and I were placed in the McGregor home in the Wynberg area for a few weeks. I don’t have any unhappy memories of the Orphanage except feeling homesick, but the Mcgregor home, in contrast, was a heartless place. I also felt very betrayed that I was put into that ghastly place during my school holidays! – after so many years away from home: five years in the Orphanage and two years at boarding school in Wellington. It was the unhappiest time of all my school years, perhaps because I felt that all meaning had been drained out of me.
The family home moved from Maitland to Selous Road, Claremont in 1950, close to Landsdowne Road, which is a main artery connecting Landsdowne to Claremont. A corner plot separated our house from the road. When Gerry was home during his long spells in different institutions, he would sit on the right front corner of the wall of our house where he had a good view of the double-decker buses passing by. He had a note book, and wrote down the numbers of the buses, the adverts and other details.
Here is a typical double decker bus that we had in Cape Town during the 1950s and 1960s. The photo is of an English double decker, which was exactly the same as the ones in Cape Town. As shown in the photo, the number on the front of the bus (number 129) is visible from a distance.
Gerry and I enjoyed “jumping” the buses. We stand a little distance from the people waiting for the bus so that the “conductor” (ticket inspector) of the bus gets the clear message that we are not waiting to get on the bus. The bus arrives. The people climb onto the small platform situated at the back left corner of the bus. There is a horizontal bar for hoisting yourself onto the bus.
One morning, I got up, bent down to retrieve my precious veldskoens from under the bed. They were gone. So was Gerry. I knew where he might have gone – to one of his friends, who lived in upper Claremont, whom I had seen a few times. I walked up Landsdowne Road, over the railway bridge, across Main Road, Claremont and into upper Claremont. I had a rough idea where his friend lived, I knocked at the door. It was the right house. His friend came to the door. It was about 10 in the morning. I asked him whether Gerry was there. He said yes, but that he was still asleep. I told his friend to take me through to him. Gerry was breathing heavily under the covers. I’m not sure whether he had heard me and was pretending to be asleep. Under Gerry’s bed were my veldskoens. I swore at Gerry and roughed him up a bit. He let out a bewildered grunt. I grabbed my shoes and made for the front door. As I left the house, I turned round and met the baffled stare of his friend. I remember that incident with shame.
Gerry had rubber legs, which he did not only use to good effect in conversation – he talked with his legs – and escaping from “government” people, but also in sport. In his late teens-early 20s he took up the high jump and walking races. In those days, high jumpers used the scissors technique, where the jumper kept the body upright, then threw first the inside leg and then the other over the bar in a scissoring motion. You couldn’t jump very high using this technique, but Gerry’s rubber legs did help raise the bar of the game.
For many years I hardly saw Gerry. I saw him in the 1960s at the bris (circumcision ceremony) of my brother, Sammy’s son, Moshe, which took place in the lounge of Sammy’s flat in Kenilworth. There was a reproduction of Tretchikoff’s Blue Asian Lady on the wall. Gerry fixed is dark brown eyes on the painting and communicated in gyrations of pollysyllabic rapture the finer features of the painting, which defied all rules of syntax, and which had nothing to do with the painting at all.
I saw him a few times at my parent’s next home – a flat in Sea Point. He became a travelling salesman. In 1971, I went to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and taught at St George’s College in Salisbury (now Harare). One day, one of the Jesuit priests came to me and said my brother wants to see me. Brother, brother? What brother? There must be a mistake. Gerry appeared; with a wife that I’d never seen before. She was much older than him. He was on one of his travelling trips, which I never thought would take him so far away from Cape Town.
There was I, a light-complexioned, pony-tailed “Senior French Master” of a Jesuit college, one of the most prestigious private schools in Rhodesia, squirming next to Gerry, my rough weather-beaten brother, with black hair and dark brown eyes, who spoke – like most South African Jews – in a strong South African accent. Jews are loud and intense. Gerry and I were no exception. Jews don’t speak; they declame. But Gerry did more: he was an Othello, without an axe to grind. (I describe later my years at St George’s College).
A little while later, I heard that Gerry had been arrested at the Beit Bridge Border crossing from Rhodesia into South Africa. Izzy had to pay Gerry’s huge fine to keep him out of jail. He must have been smuggling something. During that time, Rhodesia, under the Smith government, was undergoing international sanctions. I don’t know the details of Gerry’s arrest. It would be nice to think that he wasn’t doing anything worse than breaking sanctions. But this is unlikely, because, South Africa practically ignored the sanctions rules, which meant that trade to and from Beit Bridge was not seriously affected.
The next time I saw Gerry was in 1978, two years after I had returned to South Africa from Rhodesia with my newly-wed wife, Cathy. We were living in Observatory, below Groote Schuur Hospital, the hospital where Chris Barnard did the world’s first heart transplant 11 years before (1967), and where my brother Leslie had died of rheumamtic fever in 1949. Gerry came to visit us. He had no money. He had previously won about 20 000 Rands on the horses, which didn’t last long. He was hungry, and wanted to borrow R20. He told me that he had been to another family member who had said to him: “What are you doing here?”, and slammed the door in his face. Gerrry had sold most of his furniture.
Not long after, I visited Gerry in Groote Schuur hospital. He had had a heart operation. He spent much of the time describing a horse race that he had been listening to on the radio, in which the horse he had bet on had been pipped at the post. His eyes were flashing with excitement. A lot of excitement for someone who had just had a heart operation.
About a week later, Gerry died. I only found out the cause 20 years later (1997) from my brother Joe in Tel Aviv, whom I was visiting. Joe said that Gerry died laughing. He laughed so hard that he split the wounds of his recent heart operation. I didn’t go to see him in the hospital. I was too frightened to see him in death. I hang my head.
What I remember most about Gerry is his deep brown eyes glistening with ecstacy in his hospital bed after listening to the radio broadcast of the horse race – that he had lost. Why would he be ecstatic about losing the race? It wasn’t about losing, it was about racing- the racing sojourner.
Labela Leslie died of a broken heart; Gershon Gerry – the sojourner – of a laughing heart.