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Alan Osborne looked up at the rugged rock face. He stepped forward and reached up for the first holds. His hands were sweating and he was angry and disturbed. The small lip of rock was just out of reach. He rocked back and forth on his toes and leapt for it. He pulled up on his fingers and walked up the smooth rock using friction from the toes of his thin rubber soled shoes. He stopped to look for more holds. He saw a wide crack above and to his right. He reached up. For a moment his full weight was on the tips of the fingers of one hand. He jammed a fist into the crack and climbed for about ten feet. Now the rock began to lean slightly outwards and a minute later he was hanging by his hands from a narrow shelf of rock. He pulled up to a small stance and stopped to rest.
He studied the flaky pillar of rock above him. It was unfamiliar and looked loose and messy. There were a couple of stunted thorn bushes growing in a crack to the right. They looked like Japanese Bonsai trees. At the top of the pillar there was a roof of smooth black rock and an upward sloping ledge – a ‘handrail’ – going to the right.
Alan was certainly not in a suitable frame of mind to be climbing Africa Face. The lower section, about three hundred feet of sheer rock, is very difficult. The crux move, called 'The Straight Jacket', is on the last pitch near the top of the section.
His climbing companion Nikolai, sitting with the rope in his hands and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, looked up at him.
"Come on," he said. "Get on with it. I'm boiling hot down here. If you're going to climb... climb! Okay?"
Alan started climbing again. He put an arm on each side of the pillar and hugged it. Using the friction of his palms and a few small footholds he moved up to the rail. He traversed on his hands until he was out from under the overhang. Then he climbed up another crack to a stance on a narrow ledge. He had to pull through a nasty bulge to get there. There was a small pile of rocks marking the route. Alan remembered part of the description in the Mountain Club Journal, "traverse right to a small beacon on the end of the ledge". The beacon was reassuring. He did not recall the pillar of rock nor the handrail.
Alan was twenty-two years old and in excellent physical condition, but he had found the pitch very demanding. He could not remember having to use his arms so much when he had climbed it before. He looked down. About thirty feet away and to the left there was crack leading up to a ledge with another small beacon on it. He had come up the wrong way! He looked down at Nikolai, who was sitting on the ledge about fifty feet below, swinging his legs over the edge. He was still smoking. Alan prepared a belay and got ready to rope him up to the ledge. He thought that he had better not make any more mistakes.
The two climbers had started from a rock shelter, more than a thousand feet below, where they had spent the previous night. They had hoped to make an early start and climb the whole of Africa Face in one day.
Alan, Nikolai and Tania had driven up from Cape Town the afternoon before. After parking the car on the contour road, they had climbed the slope to Andy's cave. The cave was under a short vertical cliff on the slopes below the front face of Table Mountain. Climbers called it a cave, but it was only a wide overhang with a sandy floor; too low to stand up in, but deep and sheltered from the wind.
Tania, Alan's girl friend, was also twenty-two and was Nikolai's twin. She did not enjoy rock climbing at all. She was more interested in watching birds and would accompany the young men as far as it was practical to go without climbing anything difficult. Then she would ramble around the slopes with binoculars and camera while the two pitted their wits and strength against the rock faces. Tania always wanted to be as close to Alan as possible.
Soon after they had arrived at the cave, Nikolai and Alan collected brushwood and made a small fire. Tania fried lamb chops, sausages and eggs for their supper. They were all in high spirits. After the meal they sat talking and drinking sherry. Nikolai got slightly drunk. He pulled his sister's hair and teased her. He tickled her under the arms and knees. Tania was very sensitive especially on the knees. She pushed her brother down and they rolled around on the sleeping bags that had been laid down on the floor. Eventually she escaped and buried her face in Alan's neck. Alan had seen this tickling and wrestling game often before and did not like it.
They had sat around the fire talking and drinking until well after midnight. Alan also became a little drunk. He picked up their double sleeping bag and spread it out on the far side of the cave. He undressed to his shorts and got in. Tania crawled in beside him soon after. Nikolai settled down on the far side against the rock wall. It was a hot and sticky night and so Alan opened the zipper halfway down. The last thing he remembered, as he was falling asleep, was Tania easing her legs out to lie on top of the bag.
Alan awoke very early. There was a cool breeze blowing and a soft glow of pre-dawn light filled the cave. Then he heard a faint, familiar sound. He opened his eyes and turned towards Tania. She was not there. He sat up and looked across the cave. In the pale pink morning light he saw something that almost stunned his senses. He rubbed his eyes and blinked. He wondered if he was dreaming.
His first reaction was complete disbelief. Then he clenched his fists and prepared to rush across the cave. But he did not move. He sat there sick and rigid. Then he started to cry silently. He watched through tear-filled eyes for what seemed a very long time. When he could stand the sight no longer, he lay down and squeezed his eyes shut. He heard Nikolai groan.
He kept his eyes closed and pretended to be asleep when Tania came and settled down quietly next to him. He lay beside her with his fists clenched and fingernails digging into his palms. When the first streak of full sunlight hit the cave he jumped up and grabbed Tania by the arm. He pulled her, still half asleep, across the sandy floor and out along the slope to a place out of earshot of the still sleeping Nikolai. He shouted at her and argued with her for a long time. It ended with Alan in a jealous self-righteous rage. They went back to the cave. Tania got the fire going again. She made coffee and boiled some eggs ... all in stony silence. She shook her brother awake and gave him a mug of coffee. Alan had to pour his own.
Tania kissed Nikolai on the cheek as they scrambled out of the shelter. But she ignored Alan. When he tried to kiss her, she turned away and dismissed him with a defiant stare. That had made him even angrier. He had almost leapt upon the unsuspecting Nikolai who was outside the cave waiting for him. Alan was shaking with disgust when they started off up the slope. It was well after midday when they reached the start of the climb, more than two hours behind schedule. At that rate they would barely be off the rock before dark.
The arrangement was that Tania would carry their sleeping bags and rucksacks to the car. That would take her about two hours because it meant two trips between the cave and the road below. But she had plenty of time. They would be climbing at least until sundown. She would then drive to the end of the road and meet them by the Cableway Station. The men had not expected to be so late in starting.
Tania packed up soon after they left. She had all the gear in the car before one o'clock and drove to a spot near a rocky ravine. She parked the car in the shade of a huge pine and walked down the path to a clear rock pool. It was very hot. Tania undressed and jumped into the icy water. When it became too cold she got out and lay in the sun until she was dry.
Tania was also deeply disturbed by what had happened with Alan that morning. She had no idea what she was going to do about it. She did not even know if there was anything she could do about it. She blamed herself entirely and wondered what the outcome was going to be. For a moment, when she had turned away from him, she thought there was going to be a scene; that Alan was about to attack her or Nikolai. She had never seen him in such a state before. At least she should have kissed him good-bye.
Tania moved into the shade of a tree and opened Nikolai’s pack. She rummaged around until she found the leftover sherry. She finished it, drinking straight from the bottle and lay down again. She fell asleep. Two miles away the two climbers were on the rock face.
"OK! I'm here." Alan shouted to Nikolai. It was not easy to hear the other's reply. A stiff breeze had come up since they had started the climb.
Alan selected a short sling from his belt and passed it behind a stone jammed in a narrow crack in the rock. He fastened the sling to another around his waist with a metal karabiner and screwed the safety-nut tight. When he was ready he called out to Nikolai to come up.
Nikolai climbed to the ledge. He changed places with Alan and clipped his own karabiner into the loop. He was ready to belay Alan up the next pitch. Alan examined the belay point and tied the end of the main climbing rope firmly to the sling around the chock-stone. He also examined the sling around his companion's waist. He shortened it and checked the main rope again.
"Okay! Slack out. Climbing." He said and stepped up onto the rock.
The next rock pitch was harder. It started with a layback up a narrow crack in a corner. Alan was not feeling good. His mind was not on climbing at all. He tried to force himself to concentrate. But his thoughts kept going back to Tania and what he had seen. He climbed fast and carelessly. It became more difficult. At one stage his foot slipped out of a small sloping crevice while he was searching for a handhold. He grabbed wildly upwards and was lucky to find a firm hold. He had to hang on with one hand until he found a more secure position.
The slip scared him and he called down to Nikolai. "Just keep the slack in and be prepared. It's windy up here and not very easy."
He did not hear a reply. Nikolai had not heard him in any case. But Alan was too busy to concern himself with details. His arms were getting tired. He reached the ledge and passed a sling around a solid slab of rock. Then he belayed Nikolai as he climbed quickly to join him.
They rested on the shelf below the final pitch of the section. Above them a smooth vertical wall of rock stretched up to the ledge fifty feet above. It seemed unbroken by any obvious handhold or foothold. Alan looked at his hands. They were shaking. He thought he was about to lose his nerve. He was lucky to have got up this far. He had never been so unsure of himself on a climb before. He looked at Nikolai sitting with his back to the rock smoking a cigarette. Anger suddenly boiled up inside him. He forgot his nervousness.
"I wish you wouldn't smoke all the bloody time," he said. "The smell makes me sick." He felt like killing Nikolai.
"Okay, I won't smoke another. Just let me finish this one," Nikolai replied.
Nikolai did not understand what was wrong with his companion. He seemed tense and bad-tempered. He had noticed Tania's coolness towards Alan in the cave and guessed they had been arguing. At dawn, when Alan and Tania had gone out of the cave, Nikolai opened his eyes briefly. But he fell asleep again almost at once. He woke up again when Tania had the coffee ready. He had no idea how distressed Alan was.
Alan tried to concentrate and prepare himself for the last assault. The route went to the right, out on a smooth face above a sheer drop of several hundred feet. He slipped two slings behind a flake of rock and passed them both around Nikolai's body. He clipped them together with a karabiner to stop them slipping. The slings looked too thin to him. He used the end of the main rope to secure Nikolai more firmly to the flake. This used up some feet of rope, but the pitch above was not very high. When he was satisfied that Nikolai was firmly attached, he began to study the rock face.
They were using a nylon climbing rope from Norway. Under strain these ropes stretch and take up the load gradually. They hardly ever break under normal climbing conditions. But the nylon could be chaffed and cut by sharp rocks. However, the one they were using that day was almost new and in perfect condition. It could hold more than two tons. Tania had given it to Alan for Christmas.
"I think we'll call it a day after this. I'm not too keen on going on. At this rate we won't get through the upper section before seven, or even later," Alan said in an almost even voice. But he was thinking: "I'd like to kill you! You bastard!"
"Yes I agree, we can walk along the ledge and go down India Venster. We'll be down by four," Nikolai replied.
The final pitch ended on a wide ledge. A short scramble up the slope would take them to a well-worn path running across the front of the mountain. From there a quick and easy path down the slope led to the contour road. The path ended near the lower Cableway Station where Tania would be waiting with the car.
Nikolai finished his cigarette. He carefully stubbed it out and pushed the remains into a small crack.
"Okay. I'm ready when you are."
Alan looked at him and paused. He went to the end of the ledge and set up a second belay. He took a big steel nut from his belt and slipped it into a crack. He clipped a karabiner with a short sling into the nut and pulled it down until it was jammed tightly. He tugged hard on the sling. It seemed to be quite solid. He passed the main rope through a second karabiner on the new belay point and closed it. When he was satisfied, he turned his attention to the rock.
"Right! Slack out ... I'm going up."
Alan climbed straight up for fifteen feet. Then he started to cross the smooth face to the right. He was now directly above the end of the ledge. It was hot and his hands were sweating. He could not get a good grip. He looked down at Nikolai - he was yawning.
"Please don't go to sleep. I'm climbing up here."
Nikolai said nothing. He pushed the coiled up rope away from his legs. It had become tangled and twisted. He kicked idly at the coils a couple of times.
Africa Ledge, fifty feet above, had eroded over the years. For two summers in succession devastating bush fires had burned across the face of the mountain. Fanned by the wind, the flames had been so hot that they burned the vegetation down to the roots. There were few plants left to hold the soil together. As a result there was loose sand everywhere, especially at the edge.
At the top of the vertical wall there was a small niche. It was the last foothold and only a few inches wide. From there a climber steps up onto the wide Africa Ledge itself. Sand was running down and being funnelled through a small crack in the rock. A cone had formed on the foothold, like the sand in the bottom of an hourglass.
Alan reached the crux move. His feet were held by friction and balance on tiny sloping holds. He rubbed his hands one at a time across his khaki shorts. He stayed in the same place for a long time. Soon a calf muscle started to quiver and in a moment his leg was jumping up and down. Alan reached up for a crack into which he could just fit a few fingers from each hand. He moved slowly up another few feet; and then he was over the difficult part. He sighed. Suddenly the fingers of his right hand slipped from the rock and he was off balance at once. He lunged wildly for another hold and found one. It was small knob that he had not even known was there. The grip was so small that he could not hold on to it for long.
Alan was now in such a difficult position that there was no retreat. No way out! He rushed the rest of the pitch blindly. He almost got to the top. But he stepped on the little pile of sand. His foot slipped and he fell. Half a second later the back of his head grazed the far end of the ledge where Nikolai was sitting. His left side hit the bulging rock just below the ledge with a dull thud. Then he bounced off into space.
There was nothing to stop his fall. The rope ran free. He fell a hundred and twenty feet and came to sudden jarring halt. Several ribs on his left side snapped as the thin rope tightened against them. The nylon stretched several feet, as it was supposed to do, and took the strain. For a few seconds Alan could see the rock face intermittently through a red haze as he spun round and round on the end of the rope. There was a terrible pain in his left side. He struggled for breath. Then everything went black.
What Alan had seen as he sat on his sleeping bag in the cave was so awful that he could hardly believe his eyes. The faint sound that had awakened him was a familiar soft murmur. He saw, across the barely smouldering embers of the fire, Nikolai and Tania lying together. They were both naked and there was no question about what they were doing. His beloved Tania – the love of his life – was having sex with her own brother.
"How could you do it?" Alan shouted when they were out of earshot of the cave.
Tania looked away and said nothing. When Alan was angry or upset about something she usually held his hand. Sometimes she would rest her head on his shoulder, or tug at his hair. Most times his moods passed quickly. But this time it was quite different. His anger had never been directed at her before. Nor had he ever shouted at her – not once in all the time they had been together. She did not know what to say to him. There was no point in denial. It was obvious that he had seen everything.
"Why did you do it?" He shrieked the question at her.
"He's my brother. Why should it worry you so much?" She said in a level voice. "Please don't be so upset."
"Why? Why! It's incest, that's why. It's disgusting. It's filthy."
He went on berating her for a long time. Then he started asking questions.
"How many times have you done it with him?"
"Oh. Not often ... only sometimes," she answered, looking at the sea.
"Really!" Alan said sarcastically. "What the hell does that mean?"
Tania looked at him. Then she looked at the sea again.
"What does it matter. He's my twin. We're almost the same person. We were made together. We were inside our mother for nine months together. We were born together. We have been together almost every day of our lives."
Tania put her hands on Alan's chest and looked at him. This time she spoke without turning away.
"This was the first for a long time. I didn't want to. But I gave it to him because he wanted it. Needed it."
"It! It? What the hell is 'it'? A thing? Goods? Like food on a plate?"
Tania remained cool and calm as he shouted at her. This enraged him even more.
Alan and Tania had been together for nearly five years and he knew very well how uninhibited and demonstrative she was. Tania was sometimes so affectionate in public that it was embarrassing. She often kissed and hugged her brother. Alan had sometimes thought that the display of affection was a little too intense; the way she touched Nikolai too intimate for sister and brother. He had felt – a little jealously perhaps – that there was something slightly sexual and unhealthy about Tania's relationship with Nikolai. But he had dismissed the feeling as ridiculous; she kissed and hugged him a lot too.
"You don't have to be jealous - He's only my brother after all," Tania repeated. Now she had a slightly defiant glint in her eye.
He looked at her in disbelief. This was more than he could cope with.
"How long has it been going on?"
Tania looked at him and looked away again. But she did not answer.
"How long?" Alan took hold of her wrist and squeezed hard. He dug his fingers in.
Still she gave no answer. He shook her arm. He squeezed harder. Tears were streaming down his face now.
"Tell me. Tell me!"
"Oh! Since we were about twelve," Tania said, trying to free her arm. "You're hurting me! Let go!"
"What? I don't believe you!"
"Believe what you like!"
"How often?" Now he wanted to know more.
When she did not answer, he twisted her wrist until tears came into her eyes. She cried out in pain.
"Lots of times! Sometimes every day if you have to know. Now stop hurting me."
He released her arm and turned her face towards him. He held her head between his hands. She tried to turn away, but he was too strong. She stopped struggling and looked at him. Alan was fighting with powerful emotions, feelings far beyond his experience. Waves of jealousy passed through his whole body. It was a tangible physical sensation. He shivered.
The worst part of it all was that in the back of his mind, he'd known it all along. He looked at her and drew in a sharp breath. He sobbed and fresh tears ran down his cheeks. He loved her so much. He let her go. He said nothing for a long time.
"What does your sister think about this?" Alan asked. He was breathing slowly, trying to calm himself.
"Nothing," she replied. She looked away.
She too was sobbing. There were bright red finger-marks on her wrist and a spot of blood where the skin had been broken by a fingernail. Tears were streaming down her face.
"What do you mean nothing?" Suddenly another awful idea came into his mind. She does it as well!
"You don't mean that Anna ... that she does it with him too? Do you?"
"She doesn't. But what if she does? It's none of your business. You fucked her anyway, so what does it matter!"
Alan hated to hear Tania use that word. She made it sound so dirty. It silenced him for a moment.
"Please don't say 'fuck' like that," Alan said quietly.
"I'll say what I like ... Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!" Tania looked at him and stuck out her chin. "You hurt my arm."
"Anna was before us. Before we started. It was years ago and you knew all about it anyway. It only happened once."
He paused for a moment.
"Well ... do they?"
Tania refused to answer. She just sat pouting. Then she wiped her face with the back of her hand. It did not help much, because she was still crying silently.
Alan said nothing more for a while. He looked at the girl sitting beside him. She put her chin on his shoulder and looked at the side of his face.
"Tania, I love you so very much. I thought you loved me too. How could you do it?"
"Of course I love you Alain. More than I can tell you. But you don't need to be jealous of him. He's only my brother. It doesn't count with him. It's not like I was being unfaithful to you. It's nothing. Oh please Alain don't be jealous. I didn't come with him. I would never do that any more, except with you," Tania said softly. She wiped her wet face on his shirt.
Whenever Tania spoke with feeling, she lowered her voice. Then her French accent became more pronounced. It always caused an emotional response in Alan. He loved her voice.
"Well ... promise me you'll never do it again."
Tania was silent for a while.
"I'll try. I never told you about it because I thought it was all over. But I don't want to lie to you any more. I can't promise he won't make me do it."
"What? Are you telling me he forces you?"
"He has done. Sometimes..."
Alan stared at her in disbelief. Then he started to argue again. But he was out of his depth. He asked the same questions over and over again, not believing the answers she gave. He shouted at her. He pleaded with her. But she had become more sullen. Finally she refused to say any more and just cried. They went back to the cave and Tania prepared breakfast.
Alan never said a word to Nikolai. Despite what he had seen and heard in the cave, his mind still refused to accept the reality. He was like a person who has lost a loved one and refuses to believe it had happened. He had almost been in denial, half expecting Tania to say that it was not true. That nothing had happened. That it was all in his mind. He wanted desperately to wake up from this awful nightmare.
When Alan fell, Nikolai had been paying little attention to what he was doing. He was taken completely by surprise. He had pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. He was just about to light one, when he heard a scratching noise from above. A moment later Alan hit the end of the ledge in front of him and bounced off.
Nikolai had been holding the rope loosely in one hand. Now he closed his fingers around the sliding nylon and grabbed hold with his other hand as well. He tried to stop Alan's fall. The rope, which had been lying in a tangle about his feet, was now running around his waist and over the ledge at tremendous speed. It burnt his hands and he relaxed his grip. A moment later he took hold of it again. This time he tried to use friction against his chest to reduce the speed of his companion's fall - the so-called dynamic belay. It made no difference. He had left it too late. All he could hope for was to slow Alan down so that the rope would not break.
The rope continued to run out almost unchecked and finally Nikolai closed both hands tight on the slippery nylon and folded his arms across his chest in desperation. A split second later there was a sickening jolt as the rope did come to the end. It was wrenched from his hands and a coil tightened in a single hitch around his right leg. Nikolai was jerked forward and the rope slings, which held him to the flake of rock, tightened against his chest and held. The whole disastrous episode had taken less than three seconds.
Alan was suspended about a hundred feet below the ledge and Nikolai could do absolutely nothing to help him. He spat out the unlit cigarette, which had somehow stayed between his lips and shouted to Alan. He got no answer. He shouted repeatedly. He continued to shout for a long time. The blood supply to his leg was severely restricted and his hands were burnt so badly that he could hardly do anything with them.
Nikolai tried to get his fingers under the rope around his leg, but it was impossible. Despite the pain he took hold of the slippery nylon below his knee and pulled. This relieved the pressure on his leg a little. But he was soon forced to let go. He looked at his hands. His right palm had a deep red score right through the flesh and blood was oozing slowly into the furrow. His left hand had also been burnt deeply, but was not quite so bad. His fingers had also suffered.
Nikolai continued to shout, but there was no answer. He heard only the cry of the Red Winged Starlings as they flew about the smooth rock face above and below.
Alan, like many children in South Africa, had started school when he was six. His first school was a Dominican Convent called St Mary’s. It was a few miles from the Osborne's house in an old part of the city. He was very happy there and loved the kind and gentle Nun, Sister Mary Stanislas, who taught him in kindergarten. Although it was primarily a girls' school, the first two classes had boys as well.
He soon settled down and made friends with the little girl who sat next to him. The classroom was full of interesting things - statues of Saints, dozens of Holy pictures. One wall had glass-fronted cabinets filled with the trinkets the children had made over the years; little glass bowls covered with silver paper on the outside and lacquered. Small trains made of match-boxes, plaster farm animals, dogs and cats. The cabinets always smelled so interesting; of paint and varnish, of glue and brown paper. Alan never forgot those smells.
The most fascinating thing was a brightly coloured cardboard model at the back of the classroom. It was a staircase, attached to an elaborate painted background on the wall. The replica was partly three dimensional and about four feet square. Thirty marble stairs led up to a pillared Heaven. At the gleaming portal Jesus stood with outstretched arms and gentle smile. He was dressed in white and gold and had a wounded bleeding heart exposed upon His breast. A second crown of thorns encircled the heart itself. At His feet lay the Lamb of God, and overhead a Dove floated in the centre of a radiating ray-burst of golden sunshine. In between the marble pillars and among the green tropical trees of Heaven, stood angels and saints and all kinds of animals, all looking expectantly down towards the staircase.
On the steps up to Heaven, held by long pins with big heads, there were little cut-out paper babies of different colours. They had been made meticulously by the Nun. Each little face was carefully drawn and coloured. Some were brown; but most were yellow. Each baby was different. Many of the yellow ones had Chinese coolie hats. The brown ones had no hats, only black hair. Some babies were on the lower steps, others halfway up. A few were near the top. Each paper baby 'belonged' to one of the children in the class. Alan's first was quite definitely Chinese. It had tiny slit eyes and a little yellow face.
The children would bring a penny to school as often as they could. The coins would be dropped into a wooden money box. Sister Stanislas would move the donor's baby up one step for each penny. When a baby got to the top it was exchanged for an angel that was then pinned in a convenient place in Heaven. There was a box of assorted babies and angels to choose from. Often when a baby got within two or three steps of the top, its benefactor would bring extra pennies. Then the baby could jump up the last few steps right into heaven.
In China, the class was told, new-born girl babies were thrown into the Yellow River to drown. They could be bought for half-a-crown. The children's money was sent to missionaries in China who used it to buy the unwanted babies. The babies were then baptised, after which they went to Heaven.
Sister Stanislas did not tell them what happened to the babies after they were bought and baptised. Alan presumed they went straight up to Heaven. He knew that if you were baptised that was where you went. The Nun had not bothered to explain that the babies would have to die before they could go to Heaven. Alan pictured dripping wet babies floating up to Heaven after they had been pulled out of a bright yellow river and baptised.
Alan even knew how to baptise babies himself. It was one of the very first things the Nun had taught them. All you had to do was pour water on the babies head while saying the words, "I baptise thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." Anyone could do it. Alan learned later that a non-Catholic or even a Pagan could baptise a baby as a Catholic. This was something that Alan, at six years of age, could not understand. Non-Catholics, according to his mother and father, were a very different kind of people and not very nice. The only thing worse than a 'non-Catholic' was a 'Free Mason'. Alan had no idea what a Freemason was.
Each day his father took him to school on the way to his office. Alan spent the day decorating little glass dishes with silver paper, painting plaster animals, making paper hats or stringing beads. He also began to learn the alphabet and to count. In a few months Alan had been able to read all the books they had in the class.
Alan was a nervous child and a total conformist. One cold morning his father was late. When he left Alan at the school gates the bell had already been rung and all the other children were inside. Alan waited behind one of the big brick gate posts all day until it was time to go home. He got very hungry and tired. His mother came for him and took him home, not realising that he had been there all day. She found out later when Sister Stanislas asked her why he had missed a day. For almost a year Alan was perfectly happy at school. Then one day his mother became ill.
Mrs Osborne was a beautiful woman. She had bright blue eyes and a pale soft skin. She was small and slim and only chin high to her husband. Her long hair was brown and curly. She had a very good figure and caused many a male head to turn when she was in public. She aroused the protective instinct in men. Mr Osborne seemed unaware of how attractive his wife was.
Mrs Osborne collected Alan from school each afternoon. She usually brought her small daughter with her in a push-chair. Sometimes they went shopping, or walked in the cool botanical gardens. Alan fed peanuts to the squirrels and little Mary toddled unsteadily after them across the soft green lawns. Later they went by bus to their house in Devil's Peak - high on the slopes of the mountain above the city.
Now Alan was brought home by a teen-aged St Agnes pupil called Marie who lived a few doors away. When he got there he would find his mother in bed, or sitting smoking in a chair in her room. She hardly ever came out except to go to the bathroom. Her tummy was big and she walked in a strange way. She always had a cigarette hanging out of her mouth. Alan could not understand what was happening to his mother.
She had burned holes in all her sheets and blankets because she was always falling asleep with a cigarette in her hand. She also drank an awful lot of 'Gin and Lime'. Alan did not know what gin and lime was, except that it was very smelly. His father took the bottles away whenever he found them. But Marie's mother Hilda, who was Mrs Osborne's good friend, always brought her more.
After greeting his mother, Alan would find something to eat in the kitchen; a banana or a red frankfurter and a glass of milk. Then he would change into khaki shorts and shirt and play in the garden or outside in the fields until his father came home. Now and again he would go into the house to see his mother.
His little sister Mary usually stayed in the house and spent most of the day in his mother's room, playing with dolls in a corner. His mother said she was a delicate child. It was not good for her to play and run about with the other children, or to get too excited. Alan noticed that whenever Mrs Osborne held Mary on her lap, or even looked at her, she got very sad and sometimes cried. He had no idea why.
Mr Osborne was always tired when he arrived home in the late afternoon. He was an editor on the daily newspaper, the Cape Argus, and worked a long hard day. After checking to see that his wife was all right, he would bathe the children and dress them in their pyjamas. Then, while the children played in their room he would make supper. While they ate, he prepared a tray of food and took it to his wife. She hardly ever did more than pick at it. There was usually an argument.
One day Mrs Osborne became much worse. The doctor came and later she was taken away to hospital. Alan watched the ambulance drive away from his bedroom window. His mother did not come back for weeks. Mr Osborne visited her in hospital but children were not allowed.
While Alan's mother was in hospital, her sister Vivienne came each day to help. She cleaned the house did the washing and looked after Mary and Alan. Alan loved his auntie Viv. She made lovely fluffy white bread and always brought a fresh loaf each day. One day she brought a little white kitten.
Alan came home one afternoon to find that his mother was back. He dropped his satchel and ran into her bedroom to welcome her. She was smoking as usual, sitting up in bed and talking to Marie's mother Hilda. They were both drinking Gin and Lime. Mary was in the corner playing with her kitten. His mother hugged him without much enthusiasm and immediately began to cry. Hilda told Alan to run along as his mother was not very well. She'd had a big operation.
Mr Osborne took all the leave due to him and stayed at home to look after his wife and children. He did his best. But Mrs Osborne was almost impossible to please. She shouted and argued and cried a lot. When he could take the strain no longer he placed an advertisement for a housemaid on the notice board at work. He had a reply the next day, from the daughter of one of the men who worked in his company.
The Osborne's house was built on a steep slope and had a big cellar. It was almost as big as the house itself. With the help of a couple of neighbours Mr Osborne built a partition wall across the basement. One of the windows was taken out and replaced with a bigger one and the room was panelled in pine. In less than a week they had built comfortable maid's quarters.
While the men were busy doing the work Alan heard his mother and father having a heated argument.
"I won't have a coloured girl using my bathroom!" She yelled at him. "These maids have filthy habits. They're dirty. I won't have it."
"Well, if everybody thought like that, I wouldn't be at all surprised if they were," Alan's father replied under his breath.
And so more alterations were made and a bathroom with toilet and shower was added. What had started out to be a simple maid's room, ended up as a complete single flat. It was very comfortable and some years later Alan lived there himself.
The new maid arrived the day the room was ready. Alan and Mary watched her unpack her suitcase. She was a Malay girl in her late teens, sloe-eyed with golden skin and very thick black hair that she kept in a plait down the nape of her neck. Her name was Fatima, she smiled a lot showing beautiful white teeth and she sang. She loved children and in a few days had the house clean and in order.
Fatima did all the housework and the shopping. She got Alan and his sister out of bed in the morning and fed them. She took Alan to school and she collected him in the afternoon. She cooked an evening meal each day. Within a few week's, life began to take on some degree of normality.
But Mrs Osborne's mental state became worse. She lay in bed all day smoking and would not get up at all. Fatima took all her meals to her in her room. Mr Osborne and the children ate alone.
Fatima loved to play with the children. They rode on her back holding on to her hair as she crawled about making noises like a horse. Alan loved to feel her hair when it was loose. It was so thick and soft and smelled so fresh.
They sat together in the garden and she told them stories about Sinbad the sailor and the forty thieves. They ran around and rolled on the grass. One day Alan fell and hurt his leg. Fatima hugged him to her breast and comforted him. Alan became quite possessive about Fatima. Alan's mother noticed how attached the children had become to her. She began to resent Fatima and complained about the way she did things.
Alan's father refused to discuss his wife's condition with anyone. He answered Alan's questions with grunts. But once Alan found him sitting quietly with tears in his pale blue eyes. Alan went to sit with him, but he hastily wiped his eyes and got up from the sofa and walked away.
Alan had no idea what was wrong with his mother. He did gather, from scraps of conversation between her and her friend Hilda, that the doctor had taken out some of her insides. He never asked his mother what had happened. He was repulsed by the fact that she had parts missing and for a long time he did not touch her if he could avoid it.
"Oh God! Hilda, I'm just an empty barrel." Alan heard his mother say late one afternoon while she and Marie's mother were having their first drink.
In the very early hours one morning Alan awoke to hear his mother, in the next room, moaning aloud and threshing about in her bed. He was frightened and got up quickly to call his father.
Alan's father had chronic chest trouble and his bedroom was an enclosed veranda at the front of the house. He always had one window open for fresh air, which he had been told would be good for him.
Alan found his father's bed empty. He ran to the back of the house to see if he was in the bathroom. He was not. He went back to his mother's room. She was rolling from side to side and had sweat on her face. She moaned loudly. Alan ran down the steps to the cellar to call Fatima. She would know what to do. His bare feet made no sound on the wooden steps. He opened the door and stopped in his tracks. He saw his father. He was naked and he was lying on top of Fatima on the narrow bed. Fatima had her arms and her legs around him and they were doing something very strange.
Alan stood staring at them, he was fascinated and a little frightened. Neither Fatima, nor his father, seemed aware of his presence. Then Fatima began to make a strange noise. She put both feet flat down on the bed and pushed herself up. She was trying to lift his father. Startled, Alan backed out of the room and ran silently up the stairs. He thought Fatima was being hurt, but he was not sure. He was very confused.
At the top of the stairs he remembered his mother. She was sleeping on her back and snoring softly. Alan went back to his room and got into bed. He had never seen his father naked before.
Mrs Osborne's health did not improve. It became much worse. The doctor visited her almost every week. One day Alan heard his mother and the doctor talking.
"Hester, I'm afraid that if you don't get out of bed and move around more you are going to be in a very serious condition before long. And you have to stop drinking and smoking so much."
"I can't Dickie. I'm finished as a woman. I'm no good as a mother. It's all over for me."
There was a long pause before the doctor spoke again.
"I think you need to go away for a while. You should take a sea voyage. Go to Europe for a few months."
"Huh!" Alan's mother snorted. "Where on earth would the money come from?"
The Doctor said nothing and left shortly after. He came back in the evening and sat in the garden under the fig tree with Alan's father. They talked for a long time. Dr Dickman and Mr Osborne were very good friends.
A few weeks later Alan and his sister stood on the dock with their father and watched as the huge steamship left. It was taking his mother away to England. She waved, cried and threw coloured paper streamers. She suddenly seemed to be a whole lot better. Alan did not see her again for more than two years.
When he was eight years old Alan left the convent and started as a day boy at St Matthew's College in Sea Point. The School was run by Irish Brothers of the same name. For the first few years he moved from class to class without too much effort. But he was a lazy boy and did his homework fast and carelessly. He far preferred to play with crystal radio sets or do dangerous electrical and chemical experiments in the basement workshop.
Each afternoon when Alan arrived home from school Fatima would have a light meal ready for him. He would change into khaki shorts and shirt. Then, at Fatima's insistence, he would do his homework. He hated that part of the day. As soon as he was finished he would rush outside to play. In rainy weather he would go down to the workshop.
Fatima took Alan's sister Mary to school at St Mary’s Convent and brought her back in the afternoon. Mary was two years younger than Alan and spent most of her time in the house with Fatima. She played with dolls and her cat. Alan had very little to do with his young sister.
When it was time for dinner the children would eat in the kitchen and remain in the house until their father came home. Bath time was seven-thirty and after that Fatima would tell them a story in the sitting-room and send them to their bedrooms. She would kiss them goodnight when they were in bed and then Mr Osborne would do the same. He loved his little daughter very much and spent a long time talking to her each night.
A letter arrived from Alan's mother about once a month. She wrote about England and her relatives. She sent postcards from Paris and Edinburgh. She sent photographs of a man called Mr Griffin, of Mr Griffin's car and Mr Griffin's house. The pictures of the car interested Mr Osborne and he told Alan all about it. The car ran on gas. To make the gas a coal fire was made in a little stove attached to the back of the car. The gas was stored in the big tank on the top. Mr Griffin must also have been taking pictures of Hester Osborne because there were many of them too.
The first letter was about six pages long and contained a dozen pictures of Mrs Osborne. She was standing, sitting, walking and generally having fun on the ship. In later letters there were pictures of her standing in Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square and many other Squares. Alan remembered them all, but did not understand why a Circus looked just like a street. He asked his father where the Circus was. All he could see was a little statue on a plinth. There was invariably a message to Alan and his sister at the end of each letter. Usually it was to tell them to be good, obey their father and work hard at school.
Alan's memory of his mother faded to a blur. To him she became a person who sometimes sent letters from England. The letters got thinner and the intervals between them longer. Fatima took her place. The young Malay girl was happy and her happiness made Alan feel very secure. His little sister Mary, on the other hand, turned to her father for love. Sometimes she asked him when Mommy was coming back, but her memory of their mother was worse than Alan’s.
One night Alan woke up feeling thirsty and he went to the kitchen for a glass of water. He heard voices coming from the sitting-room. He went to the door. He saw his father and Fatima sitting on the sofa. Mr Osborne was holding Fatima's hands in his. Fatima was crying. The next morning his father told him that his mother would soon be coming home.
By the time Mrs Osborne had decided to return, World War II had begun. Getting back to South Africa was not easy. There was a long waiting list for a passage. It was also dangerous because the U-boats had already started operating in the Atlantic. Mrs Osborne had to wait for more than a year before she could get a berth on the Mail Boat to Cape Town.
Alan hardly knew his mother, but felt instinctively that she was different. She was self assured and bossy. She drank very little, but still smoked a lot. She took charge of the house and changed everything at once. She moved all the furniture around. She started ordering Fatima about. Everything the girl did was wrong and had to be done again. Mrs Osborne started to discipline Alan and his sister and they ran to Fatima for sympathy.
If Fatima sang or hummed while she worked Mrs Osborne would ask her to be quiet because she had a headache. When Fatima smiled and laughed with the children Mrs Osborne would find fault with something she had done. Fatima soon learned that the less she smiled around Mrs Osborne the better. If she did not look too happy she was left in peace. Her happy smile appeared less often and this disturbed Alan. He couldn't understand why Fatima smiled and laughed in the garden or downstairs in her room, but always looked so sulky in the house.
But Mrs Osborne could not settle down. She spent a few months at home looking after the children and keeping things in order. In the end she became so bored that she decided she had to find something interesting to do. One day she went to the city and came back dressed in an army uniform. She had joined the WAAFs (the Woman's Army Auxiliary Force).
After that Alan hardly saw his mother. She left home each day before he went to school and did not come back until six in the evening or later. Once or twice a month she was away for four days on 'special duty'. Her absence took some of the pressure off Fatima and the children. But Alan was already ten years old and becoming quite independent. He travelled to school and back by bus each day by himself. He had been attending St Matthew's College for three years.
Alan revolved slowly on the end of the long rope. He was hanging a hundred feet above the boulder strewn slope and a hundred and twenty feet below where he had fallen. He regained consciousness slowly and opened his eyes. The first thing he saw was a red-winged bird glide gracefully into a crevice in the rock face far below. He looked up. He could see the rope rising vertically above him. It disappeared over the sharp edge of an overhang high above.
"Nikko!" Alan managed to shout. "Nikolai! Can you hear me?"
He shouted for some time before Nikolai heard him. Although he thought he was shouting loudly his voice was faint and did not carry far. Eventually Nikolai heard him and shouted back.
"Alain! Alain. Are you all right?"
"No! I'm not. I can't reach the rock. Can you let me down a little?"
"I can't. The rope has all run out and it's twisted round my leg. I can't move. It's hurting like hell."
"Okay. Hang on," Alan shouted. "I'll try something."
As he spun slowly he could see the rope rubbing against the rock and it terrified him. Sweat ran down his face and into his eyes. It dripped from his cheeks and nose. He shook his head and a stab of pain ran from his chest down into his leg like a flame. But he still looked up at the rope running over the sharp rock.
"Nikolai! Can you see the rope? Where it goes over the rock. Is it going to cut through?"
"No, I can't."
Alan's left leg was numb and he could hardly move it. But when he moved any other part of his body the leg seemed to wake up and the pain was awful. His other leg seemed to be uninjured. He found that by raising it he could start to swing.
The rock face was about ten feet away and he tried to swing towards it. The longer his swing became the more the rope moved against the sharp rock above. He heard dull clicks and grating sounds from his ribs as he moved. The pain was excruciating. He could not breathe properly and became dizzy. After a few minutes he blacked out again.