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Freewheeling
28 Dec 2011

HE is 15 going on 20, and always on about his own wheels. For now, ear candy thumping tinny and repetitive, he’s plugged in to his fantasy ride while I drive Mom’s Taxi.

It’s a beautiful day, the beachfront blue and gold. So why would I write about the time my husband almost drowned in the riptide, or when I was mugged at knife point, right over there? Though both happened, true enough.

Forget that. Today is just perfect.

I park, and with a gruff “Laytr” our son scoots along the promenade hunched low on his bike, freewheeling. Black skinnies, grubby boxers. He has a worn backpack on his shoulder (tool bag), a jumbo cooler hooked clumsily on the handlebars. Sometimes we tease, say no wonder people love him, he’s meals on wheels. He doesn’t think it’s funny. Today he’s fully loaded and there’s also a garden spade balanced — just — across the bike frame and his thighs. (I didn’t ask.)

But the skate park is unfazed by difference. It’s a riotous swirl of graffiti and colours­ that should clash, down here they rub shoulders.

Casually, our son unburdens, and knocks fists with a mate.

Keeping my distance, I give a half wave hardly higher than my hip. Me. Ma. My tag is that obvious. Then I walk away and leave him motherless with the pack.

***

Battered palms battling to survive the transplant. Kites. Clouds. Crowds. Daubs of saturated colour absorb the sky. The paving has been sectioned, the gouged promenade partitioned with orange mesh. There’s no Snake Park anymore, but huge snaked coils of cable and sleeping pipes bask on red soil. Carefully I step past the tricky bits, and soon I’m bobbing along in the sunny surge. Beer boeps and muffin tops and happy saddle bags. All the young girls of summer in string bikini tops and boy shorts. Bare, gleaming shoulders.

Two ragged men have shaped a sandy molehill into a series of miraculous mountains — comic nudes and rugby beasts. One of the artists carries an empty Coke buddy to the tap. Fills up near a handwritten sign that offers Water for the Thirsty. He up-ends the bottle and drizzles the liquid through tiny­ holes in the lid, anointing. The sand darkens, then lightens. No sign of water remains. His partner smoothes and pats. Man 1 funnels a handful of mineral black to define the shark’s gills. Man 2 places shells for eyes. A mean feat. For a coin, even for nothing, they write their names upon the sand.

Mounted police clip-clop into view, the big bay horses larger than life, nostrils flexed and snorting. Children squeal. But the policemen­ sit high and sure as sheriffs — they won’t have rowdy cowboys kicking up dust in this part of town. No Siree. Reassured, a toddler offers anyone a taste of bright pink candy floss. Politely — gloved hand raised — an officer of the law declines, though he lifts his aviator shades and winks. Coyly, the child tucks her chin.

Nostalgia in the making is starting to smell pretty ripe but luckily a gritty breeze kicks up and blows it off. Along with paper, flapping past. Flags snapping at the lifeguard towers.

Soon it’s just too windy and I turn back.

Touching base at the skate park, I notice what I hadn’t before — beach sand everywhere, banked against the low walls, thick drifts in the quarter pipe and tricky hollows. Our son’s standing around with his mismatched mates, pondering, bikes and gear lumped to the side. Goose. Housecat. Big Black … who can ride this rubbish?

Housecat saunters across to a painted bin. Peers in. Yeah, empty. Perfect. Rolls it over to the park. Then while one boy holds, the others start to scoop.

Okay. I’d wondered about the spade, what the deal was. It’s mine, actually, a ladies spade, and he wields the thing as awkwardly as he does a broom when I’ve told him to get his room sorted.

Right now, he’s zealous — digga digga dig and scoop, though he’s so focused on maxxing the shallow spade that the toss tends to miss the drum, and any second I expect the Energiser Bunny batteries to conk. I mean, it’s a massive job, and the other boys have only their hands, which are pretty full with this sandpit.

Eventually the bin is heaped. High five! Our son jigs with joy, hips happening. Laughter carries on the wind. But then (lip read choice swearing) the drum won’t budge, it’s too (l r c s) heavy. What now?

There’s a temporary slump until ours truly­ is prodded into borrowing a skateboard, despite the shame — a biker losing face to the low level competition. But he does what a man’s gotta do and the BMXers put their collective muscle to the wheel, tilting the overloaded drum a bit, and eeeeasing until suddenly — da dah! — they have a wheelie bin. Then they trundle off in triumph­, two steering, three holding steady, the whole wacky arrangement wobbling across the uneven paving to the beach. There and back, time and again.

I’m not the only one watching. A curious crowd eggs them on against the odds, calling the numbers, so that when the mountains have moved, there’s clapping and whistling enough to make you think Bafana have won.

The boys take their praise like seasoned players, and give a collective bow. And then they ride.

***

Hours later, the sun sinking into shadow behind the hotels, I drive back to the beachfront to schlep the boy home. Monday tomorrow. School.

Unwillingly, he catches my eye. Scowls.

I tap my watch.

He slumps, juts his jaw. Then presses both palms together in a brief beseeching.

Alright, another 10, I signal with one hand, palm flashing twice like a winking torch.

His head goes hmm hmm side-to-side.

Okay, I relent, call it 15, and my hand adds five to the existing tally.

And so there I am again, a mother waiting just a little longer, finding a seat (of sorts) on the bare metal frame of a bench that’s been stripped and burnt.

A swarthy man asks if he may sit, and I smile, shrug.

“Ja,” he says. “It’s a free country, isn’t it. These days.”

I nod.

He settles down alongside me, tugging his trousers once at each knee and adjusting his backside to the thin, uncomfortable perch. Opens a bread bag and begins to scatter­. From nowhere, pigeons swoop and land, pecking and shoving, crazy energised, though most of them have seen better days. Mouldy feet crusted with scabs. Bare, pecked heads, painfully pink. Only a bustling few are plump, glossy feathers glinting teal and purple at the throat.

“You bringing me luck,” the man says. “I never had this much before. You must got magic, lady.”

I smile, uncertain.

He’s here from Cape Town visiting his daughter. A little holiday at the flats that side. Tilts his head. “She’s a good girl,” he nods slowly to himself, “’cept working every day but, so I come outside by myself for air. The old change of scenery.” He laughs quietly, knowing he sounds predictable.

“Though Durban people. They not so friendly as the Cape,” he adds, glancing narrowly at me.

Still, the two of us do well enough among the birds and the breadcrumbs, overlooking the boys. I laugh when he cracks a joke about cheeky female politicians — “That Helen de Zille! She makes enough noise for two women. No kak from no one, if you ’scuse my French.”

I do, and in this way we get along okay, complete strangers killing time.

Jokes aside though, it’s getting late. The bread is finished and the birds have flown.

“You should think of going soon,” I say. “It’s a bit dodgy here, after dark.” I point to the floodlights. Half have blown. He takes it in. We both know that politicians have bigger things on their minds.

“Okay, so that’s me for the day, then,” he says, standing up, brushing the last of the bread from his lap, and we smile, again, and part. Over kedovers.

It is time. The last family dawdlers are packing up, a man carrying his daughter’s shiny pink Princess bike to the car, glitter tassels streaming, a rim turning slowly as a ferris wheel. Against a cornered wall on the grassy slopes I see one of the sand artists stashing a cardboard box, unfolding a black plastic sheet.

In the gradual emptiness of the skate park, the BMXers squeeze the final ride from the dregs of the day. The red-orange sun is almost gone. Soon, the boys are only silhouettes. Even a mother can hardly tell one from another.

“Asheel!” a woman shouts, “Come! Why you won’t come ey? You want I must call Daddy?”

A tall, slender boy waves glibly at her and glides past on a lightweight racing bike.

“Asheel! Come now habibi. Yalla! You can’t stay like this forever!”

And Asheel wheels and winds, making large, lazy loops, circling the very last of the light.

ABOUT THE WRITER

SALLY-ANN Murray lectures in English studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban. (Her office looks out over the harbour, which helps.) She is a mad mom and an even madder writer, and her novel, Small Moving Parts, (2009) won the M-Net Literary Award and the Herman Charles Bosman prize in 2010.





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