The Rat Goes Home – a story about belonging

Where the story comes from

Sometimes I dream significant bits of story, but only once in a blue moon do I dream a complete story like this one. I can distinctly remember only three such occasions and this is the first time I write it down. In writing I fleshed out some of the images here and there, as things came to me, but the bulk of it especially after the ‘Ten years later’ mark was all dreamt in clear images, tastes and feelings.  The power of the new frame this story offers is still with me three days later as I write it down. I am still wallowing in its beauty and the peace it has given me.

The Rat Goes Home

They called her ‘The Rat’ from the first day she set foot in the orphanage. It was the street boys hanging like monkeys outside the gates  that gave it to her: “Hey look, today they brought in a rat!” shouted their leader, Big Daddy, a strongly built dark boy of about 12 “Hey Rat, look out  for the Cat!”, he mocked and they laughed.

She was a scrawny thing with sharp eyes, a narrow face and scruffy hair braided into a thin wispy tail in her neck, loose bit standing up and framing her face. She was six then and her father brought her. He must have been her father because he had the same scruffy hair, only his extended to a beard and his eyes were tired and sad. “I will fetch you tonight at seven  he said, and she finally let go of his hand and took the hand of Aunt Rosa, the head mistress of the orphanage.

He never did come back.

Aunt Rosa was kind and strict. She had invented a ritual for all the girls to help them make peace with their circumstances and except their lot. Whether they thought this was a kind thing to do or a horrid thing of her stricter side, did not matter, they had to do it anyway. Before bedtime every single night she would line them up and make them say as a group: “No father is coming for me and no mother is waiting for me at home. I am here, this is my family.””

The Rat had her own words: “My daddy won’t pick me up at seven and my mommy is not waiting for me at home, I am here, this is my family.”

Soon everyone said The Rat’s words and not Aunt Rosa’s.

This did not help to stop children from running away regularly, and The Rat was no exception. But she never ran away to go home. She ran away to walk the streets and play in the fields. Soon she made friends with the street boys – the gang of kids who had homes. But not good homes.

These kids knew about hunger. They would catch mice and grasshoppers to eat and they knew where to find berries and edible flowers. They knew how to steal too. But they also knew how to have fun: chasing dogs, climbing trees, teasing other children and making a general nuisance of themselves.

After some time with the boys, The Rat would end up going back to the orphanage and aunt Rosa would give her a scolding, send her to bed without food and make her say her lines a hundred times: “My daddy won’t pick me up at seven, and my mommy is not waiting for me at home…”

But next morning she would get an extra helping of porridge and a suffocating hug from aunt Rosa, grateful to have her back in one piece.

This constant running away did not help Aunt Rosa to be nice with the street boys – especially Big Daddy. Whenever she saw them outside the gates, she would come out and chase them off with a broom stick shouting insults at them. They took to calling her ‘The Witch’, but not to her face. Only once she actually managed to strike Big Daddy a blow, and he swore that from that day on he was bewitched, although no-one could tell the nature of the spell.

Inside the orphanage The Rat also made friends. The best of these was Cat, short for Cathy. Short for Catherine. Cat was known to bite and scratch especially if she felt some boy was getting too close – which wasn’t very close at all. She was shy and never spoke more than a few words. This was why she made a good friend to The Rat. She would listen and not boss her about. Cat liked The Rat in turn because The Rat, didn’t boss her about either and she often took Cat’s ideas and advice to heart.

Ten years passed.

Then came The Dame to the orphanage. The Dame ran a wash house in the city 3 and half hours’ drive away. She wanted able bodied young girls to cook, clean and wash for other people. She took any girls that were sixteen and ready for such work. The girl would get a featureless grey frock to wear, so as not to draw any attention. She would be given a bed and food and she would get her number. This number would serve as her designation, identifying what kind of work she is doing, what team she is in and what dormitory she belongs to.

Aunt Rosa was always glad for The Dame, because whenever she took a girl, there was room for another baby to enter the orphanage. She was glad too because there were many worse things for a young woman to become other than a washer woman. She knew that The Dame’s girls were not spoilt and had few luxuries, but she also knew they were kept safe and given basic sustenance –even though the work was gruelling and their hours were long.

Some time before the Dame came, Aunt Rosa called The Rat to her small study. She had sent many girls with the Dame before, but this one would take it harder than most.  It will be difficult for her to adapt to the rules and comply to the regulations of the wash house.

After hearing the news, The Rat looked like she was caught in a trap. She moved aimlessly about and tossed her head from side to side, making her braid swish. “Do I have to go?” Can I never come back? Why can’t I help out here?”

Aunt Rosa looked at her. She saw the slender young body now filling out at the hips and the breasts. The untidy brown hair in its ever present braid. Not a beauty queen, but definitely not ugly. Besides, bad boys like that Big Daddy didn’t care what kind of girl they hunted down…

She shuddered. “Better safe than sorry my dear,” she said. Now you have the rest of today and tomorrow to pack up and say your goodbyes. You will leave for the city in the morning day after tomorrow.”

Cat, a year younger than The Rat, didn’t like this a bit. She had been to the city before and had seen the grey clad girls walking with their heads down all over the place. Scurrying like mice from task to task, each with their number printed on their dresses just above the left breast.

“They’re not allowed to talk to anyone while they work. Or look anyone in the eye. You know?”

“So what, it’s all there is. Next year you can join me.”

“Oh no,” said Cat, “I will run away before that”

“You?” The Rat said in surprise, “you’ve never run away. That is why Aunt Rosa takes you into town when she goes there.”

“Yes, and that is why it will work and why they will never catch me. I will go far to a place no-one can find me.”

“Oh”, was all The Rat could answer. She believed Cat and she also believed that Cat would survive anything.

The next morning The Rat did not have to go to school. She did her chores, packed her things and hung about aimlessly. Everything inside her was upside down. In the late afternoon she heard Big Daddy and the boys calling her name. “Hey Rat, we hear you are leaving us. Come say goodbye.”

By now Big Daddy was twenty-two and leading his gang in looking after themselves, though no-one knew what that meant exactly. Lately when The Rat went out with them they would not go chasing dogs, they would just hang around on the side walk talking until Aunt Rosa would shout at them and call her back. She had given up on staying out with them so long that Aunt Rosa would get upset. She did not like to upset the head mistress anymore.

Now she looked at the boys and saw friends whom she had to say goodbye to. She hurried out and pulled Big Daddy’s cap down over his face and laughed.  He yanked her braid and they all laughed at her indignation. Then one pulled at her blouse and another at her skirt and before anyone knew what was happening she was on the ground and they were trying to keep her down, pulling at her clothes.

Suddenly a fist hit the one that was trying to settle on top of her. He toppled to one side groaning. Another wanted to take his place, but a heavily booted foot struck him in the stomach so that he doubled over. Big Daddy pulled her to her feet and brushed aside the other boys who were stunned and angry.

He walked her down the street and into the fields where they used to catch mice. He took her to a grassy spot between some trees and sat her down. Without a word he bent down and picked a purple sorrel (a little edible flower with a lemony taste). Holding it gently in one of his rough hands he walked a little further and picked another flower. One that The Rat did not know. It was a reddish brown colour and bell shaped. Ever so tenderly Big Daddy slid the purple flower into the bell of the rust coloured one. Then, with shy determination he knelt in front of her and offered it to her. “Taste it”, he said.

Delicately she picked up the gourmet offering and put it in her mouth. It tasted fresher than anything she had ever experienced.  It was crunchy, yet delicate and tender, slightly acidic, but with bitter-sweet flower flavour. “Everyone thinks we go hungry,” he said, “but sometimes, we eat like kings”.

He stood up and she rose beside him. His big bulk suddenly made her feel safer than she had ever felt before. His stubbly brown cheek was so close she could smell him. Ever so softly she brushed her cheek against his and felt a kind of tingle all over.  She wanted to kiss him.

He turn to her, took her hand abruptly and said. “Now let me take you home before the witch curses me forever.”

They returned without another word.

That night The Rat could not settle down. Aunt Rosa stayed with her as she paced the small sparse living room from end to end. “No Father is picking me up at seven, no mother is waiting for me at home.” She kept muttering, but it did not help her settle.

Eventually she sat down in a chair and fell asleep restlessly. Aunt Rosa watched her with eyes full of pity and sorrow. She knew it would be hard, but she did not anticipate her charge to be so upset. This girl who had both broken rules and created new ones, who was both feisty and fragile. She shook her head in resignation and went to bed herself.

The next morning, a little van came to pick up The Rat and her single bag. As she drove off, Cat was looking at her with love and pain in her eyes. Then the street boys shouted obscenities and insults to her. She heard Big Daddy shout: “Good Bye, Rat and good riddance!” She heard Aunt Rosa shout at the boys and she heard the familiar thwack of the broom against the gate. Then she cried.

As the van disappeared around a corner, Cat stormed out past Aunt Rosa in to the street. She walked right up to Big Daddy and slapped his face. “You idiot! She screamed. Is that the last thing you wanted her to remember? Good riddance? The last memory of her life here is that she meant nothing to no-one? Is that how you send her off? You selfish bastard! Now go away and think about something else you could have said that could have made her feel better about herself as she leaves everything she knows behind. Something that could have given her courage instead. Idiot!”

Big Daddy did not say a word and the other boys were equally stunned. The other children gathered around Aunt Rosa in fear and astonishment, they had never heard their cat talk this way or this much.

Now Cat wheeled about and walked straight to Aunt Rosa. The kids made a path in front of her. “And you, Aunt Rosa,  why should the last thing she remember be you hitting the only friend that ever looked out for her? Why do you think she would return to us safely every time she ran away? Would she not have like to think of this place as friendly, rather than full of conflict and fear? You were the only mother she ever knew. You find something nice to say to that boy right now!”

Flabbergasted Aunt Rosa looked from Cat to Big Daddy and back. “Thank you”, she said, but it was  not clear to whom she was speaking.

Then the street boys left in a hurry and Aunt Rosa herded everyone back inside. Cat went to her room and lay on her bed, staring at the ceiling.

That night, after midnight, when Aunt Rosa was still sitting at her writing desk, there was a tap on her window. Weary and uncertain she pulled open the curtain and saw the face of Big Daddy in the light from a street lamp. He gestured for her to open the window. She did, and agile as an eel, he slipped through into the study. She gasped and stood back, fearful.

Big Daddy began to talk. “I am going to get her back. But I need a car. I can drive, I just don’t have a car. I can buy one next month from my savings, but don’t have one now. I work at the restaurant, you know. Chef Robert calls me his Sue. Maybe he will let her be a waitress there. Maybe she could share my room…er…later, I mean, not now. Now she will have to come back here. But the car can wait, I mean the one I am saving for… Maybe I can pay a bit for her boarding? Is her bed still open? Maybe she won’t mind sharing with a baby…er…the baby you get in her place, I mean. Please can I borrow your car?”

Aunt Rosa looked at him. Her lips moved, but no sound came out. Her hands fluttered slightly, but made no clear gesture.

He looked at his watch “If I leave now, I can pick her up at seven.”

Then it was as if she found herself again, she picked up her keys from the table and gave it to him. She looked into his face and said: “I will be waiting for her here, at home”.





My Afrikaner identity

Let’s talk about adultery.

At a theatre workshop after introducing ourselves, we were asked to complete he sentence “I am…”  Someone said, “I am gay”, another “I am black”, still another I am “Christian”.  And me?  The best I could come up with was “I am Petro” (ny first name).  Yes I am heterosexual, female, white, Afrikaans, 32, a mother and visually disabled.  Yet, none of these things overpower the others to the extent that I could pick it as a primary identity classification.  The question annoyed me so that even now, years later I still feel my heart rate going up as I write about it.  Why this emotional reaction?  How then do I know myself and describe or live that self?  Why does my blood want to boil at a simple question of identity?

Be warned that what I say here is not new, or academically sound or even completely logical.  It is a rambling about my thoughts on the issue of identity.  I will start at one end and see where that leads me.  I am Afrikaans.  Other members of ‘die volk’ will say:  “I am an Afrikaner”, but personally I think that term is so politically loaded that I prefer simply saying I am Afrikaans.  Yet, for me, being Afrikaans is much more that speaking a particular language.  But, the ‘much more’ can not be defined in terms of something in itself, rather, it becomes meaningful as I live my life among non-Afrikaans speakers.  Among the liberal English academics where I work, I have learnt that I am more to the point than they are in meetings and discussions, yet, I am more blunt and unsophisticated in the way I relate to people on a personal level.  Yet, compared to my Afrikaans husband, I am very “English” in the way I try to be diplomatic and beat about the bush.  Truth be told, my darling man has been described as a real “Dutchman”.  The English folk who said this were ashamed of the derogatory nature of the term, yet I thought they were right.  He can be down right pigheaded and untactful in a way only an Afrikaans man (and maybe a Dutchman?) can..

Becoming the mother of a little boy also brought back a deep sense of what it means to be Afrikaans.  There is a reason why one’s first language is called your “mother tongue”.  I want my son to learn both English and Afrikaans, yet there is no way I could relate to him in any other language than my first.  I am often asked if I speak to him in English as well, and my answer is always the same.:  “only when there are English speaking people around.”  I think it is bad manners to speak in a language people do not understand in their presence.  But I feel insincere and false if I try to speak to him in English.  This is true even in situations where English people are around and so I often find myself breaking my own rule of speaking to him in English then.  What is it about this mother tongue thing?

Embedded in a language, I am sure, is the history of all who contributed to the formation of that language.  With the history come a value system and a certain perspective on the universe that cannot be transferred in another way as through the language.  Yet, after talking so much about the beauty and the deep connection I have to my mother tongue and how it goes beyond language in more ways than one, there is a major glitch. When I am with other Afrikaans speaking people, I discover how different I am from them.  When I am with my in-laws other parts of my identity become highlighted, such as my political persuasion.  I will never be comfortable in the company of people who talk about the old South Africa as though it was heaven on earth.  I will never again be comfortable in a Dutch reform church and as for “rys, vleis en aartapples” (rice, meat and potatoes) which is supposed to be a truly Afrikaans way of eating… I prefer a mix of all and everything that I find to be interesting, healthy or affordable at the time.

Since I have had my son, though, I have never felt more at home with them.  We agree on what manners he should learn, what stories he should be read and told and what songs we would like him to know.  We disagree on one issue and that is:  they find it very disturbing that we are on first name basis with him and that he does not know us as “mamma” and  “pappa”.  Of course, there are many of our English speaking friends that don’t get it either. We feel the same as with the question of identity.  Neither myself, nor my husband want our son to know us only in the role of parent.  We want him to know us as whole people.  No other term like our names can communicate the unique combination of identities that run through each of us.

We are all located on an intersection between many possible identities. These are in flux and they shift in importance from time to time, Sometimes you are with people who have a similar combination of identities to you, and you feel like you belong. Other times, often with the same group of people, you may find that one or more of the other identities feel left out.  We are always at home and lost at the same time.  Depending on what the conversation is about, or where you are in space or time and who you are with you may find your home, but it may only last for a moment or a while before you are at odds again.

In order to avoid the flux and the feeling of ‘being at odds’ we are often tempted into committing to just one of the identities. This means, instead of loving the one and only me, the unique combination of selves that is Petro, or James or Siphiwe, we look for love in a purer ideal demarcated by as few words as possible like ‘gay man’ or ‘jewish girl’. In my view, that amounts to adultery: loving some other ideal person that is not full of faults and history and memory and shade.  So here is the reason for my anger at the question of identity:  there is nothing that brings the blood of a good Calvinist, white Afrikaner to the boil like adultery..


Cut Throat Rag doll

Written and performed in Dec 2009 by Petro Janse van Vuuren as part of a life story project with 7 other women. Performed for friends and relatives of the group.

I don’t have any memory of playing with her. I have no memory of holding her. I only remember having her. I don’t even remember getting her, or who gave her to me. I just had her. I never played with her, I never held her. I am her stepmother.

She is like my grandmother (God kom haal my) and her own mother died when she was 3 of the big flu. And her step mother , I am sure, only remember having her and ending up with her, having to keep her safe somehow. Gran was never held or played with.  (God kom haal my)

Arme Ouma.  Arme Cut Throat Rag Doll. (God kom haal my). Poor Gran Poor CTRD. (God kom haal my).

I do remember running into her from time to time as I pack or unpack boxes of old childhood toys.  I most recently remember discovering her in an old metal trunk with some other toys which somehow miraculously escaped all the garage sales and Christmas old toy giveaways. Somehow, I kept holding on to her, but never holding her. Like Gran she just waited for the next time I will find her and pick her up. (God kom haal my) waiting in a frail care space to be remembered and visited.

Then she came to me in a dream, Cut Throat Rag Doll. I was expecting a wise old woman or a fairy godmother, but there she was with her gaping throat and her smiling face and open arms going “hold me, hold me, hold me!” Like Gran (God kom haal my) always praying to be saved, to be fetched. But God never comes and I never hold the doll.

And I know why I kept you but not held you and I know why I don’t give you away. Its your throat with the stuffing hanging out and the underwear that is showing. You’re a disgrace. Look at you. Pull yourself together, fix yourself up.  Every time I see you I feel like tearing at the stuffing, pull it all out and leaving you lying there just an empty skin..

But not today. No more ‘Hou my vas, tel my op, God kom haal my, gee my ‘n drukkie. Mamma, Mamma ek wil jou hê!’.. Today I take responsibility for you. Today I take the needle and thread to close you up. Today I will remove you from your in-between-space. I wouldn’t like to be waiting. I want to be out of this place where people are coming and going, being born and dying. This waiting space in between going up and going down,

Today, I make you whole. It’s time to decide if you are coming or going. I would like to give you to someone who needs to hold you. Someone who will hold you the way you want to be held. I am tired of feeling like a step mother. You need to go so that the step mother can be set free.

Nee, Ouma, dis nie jou netjiese stekies nie. (Not the neat stitching you would have done).

I want to stay, so Rag Doll, you need to go..

Ouma, what will you do?

Post Script

After I performed this story, I gave the doll to Gran. She asked me what it was and if she had a name. I said to her “Call her Monica”. This was Gran’s name. In my head someone still needed to hold Gran the way she was never help. But Gran looked at me and said “I am Monica”. She never liked the doll and never held her. She soon asked my mom to take her away, please. Gran was no longer the step child, she had come into her own. I could stop pitying Gran and begin to accept and love her without guilt.