By Dave Mann
A day of freshly cut grass and Gatti’s ice-creams. In the front garden, my sister teaches me to do cartwheels – she does not succeed. “You keep jumping into it and bending your arms,” she tells me. “Keep your arms and legs straight. Pretend you have a steel pole running through you and if you jump and bend, it’ll break.” I think about this for a while – perhaps too long – and then I run inside, crying.
Nine years old and at my first swimming lesson. All the other kids here are around five or six. How embarrassing. I love the water, but I am terrified of it. This on account of the fact that I had a particularly frightful experience with a swimming pool when I was three. The smaller kids are jumping into the pool like bombs. I’m sitting on the steps of the shallow end, watching.
Grade seven. Puppy love. Changing skin. Growing bones. Unfamiliar heartache.
One of the cool kids, Josh, is imitating his favourite wrestler and leaping from the topmost step of the grandstands onto the soft grass of the rugby field below. He shouts a catchphrase each time he does it, just like on WWE. All the girls are watching. Should I try this too? One of the less-popular kids leaps next and when he lands, he rolls into the metal head of a large sprinkler and begins to bleed. The following week in assembly, the principle announces that the grandstands are now off limits, save for sports matches.
Older now, and less scared, too. It’s an exceedingly hot day and a group of us are moving through the dry concrete paths of the city’s open-top canals. Each time we climb a part of the wall and jump into its neighbouring section, our backpacks knock about in a clatter of spraycans and beer bottles. We paint beneath a hidden bridge – the one the train passes over – with our shirts off and our bare feet in the slimy water of the canal.
A day of sterile-white offices, X-Rays, and uncomfortable check-ups. This, we’re told, should be the last. The specialist, a small-time ex-rugby player, concludes that I have scoliosis – a slight curvature of the spine. Nothing too serious, he says, but I can no longer play contact sport and I should avoid taking up smoking or putting on an unhealthy amount (how much is that, exactly?) of weight. My parents are relieved. Me too – I finally have a legitimate excuse to not participate in school sports. But I wonder if they know I smoke? And is this why I can’t land any decent tricks on a skateboard? How embarrassing.
Mauritius by way of a wealthy relative celebrating their 50th. Days are spent reading by the sea, drinking Phoenix beer, and rattling through narrow streets in a mini-bus at high speed. We spend our final day snorkelling near a small island just off the West coast. An American woman (or was she British?) with too-large sunglasses and a nasally tone looks me up and down before telling me about my posture.
“Yew reeeally should swim more yew know. It’ll help with yaw back.”
“He knows that, thanks,” my sister interjects. “His back is fine.”
25. The age at which my body has decided to reject my lifestyle. Thin hair. Tired bones. Two-day long hangovers. Aching back, always. The other day a group of us decided to leave the city and spend the day lounging about in the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens, smoking cigarettes in the sun. A friend of ours – without any prompting – decides to execute a chain of cartwheels. Behind us, a group of American (or were they British?) exchange students eats ice-cream and watches the scene. My friend proceeds to belt out six consecutive cartwheels and each time they move, it’s a whirlwind of bent legs and flailing arms, but they do the cartwheels – all six.
And now I’m thinking that doing cartwheels doesn’t have anything to do with steel poles, and that water doesn’t really care if you’re three or if you’re nine, and that maybe some of us jump and some of us swim and some of us do both of those things at the same time. The trick, I suppose, is to stop all this thinking and to just sort of do it, really.
Photograph by Dave Mann