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Fiction Friday: read an extract from Kobus Moolman’s The Swimming Lesson and Other Stories

Award-winning author Kobus Moolman’s latest short story collection, The Swimming Lesson and Other Stories, has received praise for its unconventional perspectives. Moolman’s anthology consists of 10 short stories. Read an extract from the first story, Shelter here:

There are two bus shelters just around the corner from where he lives in Greyling Street – from the house he has always lived in. One bus shelter he likes and uses most of the time; mainly to wait for the Saturday morning bus to take him to town, to the children’s library in the centre of town, or to the OK Bazaars to buy himself a Lucky Packet (in the shape of a small, brightly-coloured cardboard suitcase) with money he received for his birthday, or to King’s Sports to look at their bats or to get another tennis ball after his was confiscated by the woman next door for damaging her flowers during a cricket match between his brother and himself.

The other bus shelter – the one he does not like – is probably closer, but he does not use it. He is not able to walk long distances, so it would make sense to use this one. But he does not. He cannot even remember ever having used it, although he knows that he must have at some point (or driven past it with his parents), for how else would he have known that he did not like it?

Sometimes he thinks it is because his favourite shelter is situated along the exact road he walks to school every week from Monday to Friday (excepting school holidays). If this is true – and already he knows enough about himself to suspect so – then he feels just a little afraid, for it would mean that he is a creature of habit; that he is, in fact, already laying down on a daily basis a pattern of living he might come to regret at some point in his
future.

But the future is too far away for him to be concerned. He is nine years old and he cannot see any reason why he should not remain nine for the rest of his life. His favourite bus shelter is made of tin. It is closed on three sides and has a roof that sticks out like the peak of a cap. The seat is not solid but consists of two polished wooden strips. When he
sits he can swing his legs vigorously and his feet do not scrape the pavement. There is a pole painted yellow just in front of the shelter – in fact, it stands between the shelter and the edge of the road.

There is a small sign on the top of the pole with a number on it, but he does not remember ever taking notice of it. He waits always for the bus with ‘City/Stad’ displayed in black capitalletters onthe front. When he returns from town, from his solitary shopping expedition, he looks for the bus marked ‘Clarendon’. He does not live in this fancy suburb on the hill – his father is a storeman in a chocolate factory – but the bus that goes there has to drive through a section of the lower end of town where he lives.

He is not yet conscious of any difference in his life as a result of living in a street where people have names like Koekie and Poppie and the Eyetie, and where they fix their cars in the front garden or in the road because they don’t have a garden at all. However, he is aware that there is something different about him because of the way people look at him when he climbs onto the bus or walks into a shop, and then he understands why his mother fusses over him so much and why he is not part of any of the gangs at school. He is not sure but he suspects that another reason he likes this small tin bus shelter is because he cannot be seen once he is inside and has drawn up his legs onto the seat beside him like a pair of crutches.

This desire to hide himself away is perhaps yet another pattern he realises that he is building for himself, from which he will not be able to escape. But he does not know what else a small boy can do who is not able to run or jump or play team sports like other children. The other children do not want him on their team. He is too slow. He falls over when they pass the ball to him. He wets himself from anxiety.

He was included once, though. In a football match between the boys and the girls. When he played goalie for the girls. He saved a goal on that occasion, and all the girls jumped up and down and screamed and put their arms around him, and one girl even kissed him on the cheek, twice – a small girl with freckles on her face and a pale skin and sad mouth that was always turned
down. They still lost 7–0 though.

On another occasion, an occasion of which he is extraordinarily proud, he won the Dressing-Up Race at school. This was the first and the only race he has ever won in his short life. In the race the boys had to run to a large heap of clothing piled up in the middle of the field which they had brought from the wardrobe of their big sister or their mother. (This part of the race he naturally lost.) Dresses, shoes, hats and handbags were all jumbled together and the boys had to scrabble and scratch around first to find all of their mother’s or older sister’s items. Then they had to get dressed as quickly as they could – dropping the awkward frocks over their small shoulders – and, hitching up their trailing skirts, run slideshuffling in oversize shoes to the finish line at the end of the field.

He won this part of the race hands down. His favourite game at home is to dress up in his older sister’s outfits and parade around the house talking to himself as if he were some high-society lady. He knows how to do up buttons and zips; how to slide-shuffle in his mother’s shoes that fit snugly over his small, black orthopaedic
boots. ‘Stop that!’ his mother would always shout at him. ‘You’re stretching my shoes.’ But she never took her shoes away.

His prize for winning the race that day was an inflatable figure of a clown that stood upright once its bottom had been weighted with water. It was virtually impossible then to knock the smiling plastic man over. No matter how hard he punched or kicked it the clown would simply bounce straight back up again. Down and up, down and up the little figure would go all day long, no matter how hard he hit it. Down and straight back up again. Down and straight back up again. He thinks that this is a very good description of how he walks, too. He tells himself that at least he knows how to fall without hurting himself.

There are two ways he can walk to get to the small tin shelter to catch the ‘City/Stad’ bus. When he comes out of his green front gate he can either walk all the way down Greyling Street until he comes to Oxford Street, turn right at the house with the knobbly walls, walk straight up this street with its crooked and uneven paving blocks, turn left at the bottom into Boom Street, past the little café on the corner, and on to the bus shelter a hundred metres or so below. This is the one way. What he calls the Long Way. Though by normal standards it is not long at all.

Or he can take the short route. In actuality, it is probably not much shorter (if at all), and really only involves cutting out the greater part of Boom Street by taking a tiny lane (Stead Lane) that sneaks behind the unkempt backyards of the same houses that front onto the Long Way. It is, however, the more interesting route. At least for a boy who enjoys tales of the weird and the wonderful. For, apart from the overgrown backyards with their rusty corrugated iron fences and scraggly fruit trees, the Short Way has the attraction of two strange creatures. Again, not strange by normal standards. But strange enough for someone who has spent their entire life in one street in the lower end of the city.

The first creature is a white goose. It makes him think of ‘The Snow Goose’. But this bird from Stead Lane is definitely not the same ideal of unwavering affection that the Snow Goose is in the story he likes to listen to on his sister’s record. It hisses like a snake and twists its long neck about just like a snake when he walks
down the lane. Because he knows that it cannot get through the wire fence (its wings have also been clipped, his father assures him) he sometimes stands for a long time enjoying the terrifying thrill of danger while the large bird with wings outstretched sways and jabs at the air between them.

But two houses down from the goose is an almost opposite creature. And one of which he is more genuinely afraid since it seems never to notice him, has never made a sound as far as he can remember, and is content simply to stand staring fixedly at him like a mythic beast from one of the books on legends that he always takes out of the library. It is a tall, elegant bird. A blue crane. Rescued perhaps from the side of some rural road where it lay flapping its broken mauve wing helplessly. He does not know for sure. Whatever its origin, he has never seen it move, but knows it is alive only because it is never in the same place in the garden. He does not look at it for long, afraid that, like the Medusa, it will turn its victims to stone.

There is one problem, however, with this short cut which, despite the dangerous and exotic attraction of the birds, causes him more often than not to avoid it. For the end of Stead Lane, where it leads back in to the top part of Boom Street, is a dirt track overgrown on the sides with wild banana trees and bushes that never flower but give off a putrefying smell from their leaves.

The track is often also covered in rubbish. It is a path that he always regrets having to go down, making him wish he had never chosen to walk down the lane to look at the two birds, that he had suffered instead the narrow pavement of Boom Street where the uneven blocks threaten at every step to pitch him into the deep gutters. He tells no one of his fears and his secret thrills. He closes himself off from admitting the truth to anyone, as if he himself were a book that he could simply shut and forget. (But how many stories are there which he does, in fact, forget?) It is a strategy he cannot ever remember learning, but seems to have been born with. As he was born with stupid feet and a hole at the base of his spine. As he was born with soft brown eyes.

Once again he has an intimation that some dark pattern of behaviour is being worn into his being that, once established, he will find it difficult to free himself from. But he does not know how else to survive. It is not a choice. It is simply what he has to do in order to win other dressing-up races. In order not to wet himself
with anxiety when a playmate passes the ball to him, shouting, ‘Score! Score! It’s wide open!’
And he falls.

* * *.

The Swimming Lesson and Other Stories

Book details

 

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