Before the Group Areas Act forced residents to leave, District Six was a vibrant community in the heart of the city. Richard Rive wrote of his upbringing among a rich array of characters in ‘Buckingham Palace’ District Six (1986), his second novel. His first, Emergency (1964), set amid the Sharpeville massacre, was published a year before he earned a Fulbright scholarship, eventually getting a PhD from Oxford University. His final novel, Emergency Continued (1991), was completed two weeks before he was stabbed to death in his Cape Town home in 1989. This is a lightly edited excerpt from ‘Buckingham Palace’ District Six (David Philip, 2007) by Richard Rive.
Part one: Morning 1955
those who used to live in District Six, those who lived in Caledon Street and Clifton Hill and busy Hanover Street. There are those of us who still remember the ripe, warm days. Some of us still romanticise and regret when our eyes travel beyond the dead bricks and split tree stumps and wind-tossed sand.
When I was a boy and chirruping 10, a decade after the end of World War II, when I was Tarzan and Batman and could sing Rainbow on the River like Bobby Breen – in those red-white-and-blue days I remember especially the weekends, which began with the bustle of Friday evenings when the women came home early from the factories and the men came home late although they had been paid off early – and the feeling of well-being and plenty in our house on the upper left-hand side of Caledon Street near St Mark’s Church. We lived in the fourth in a row of five mouldy cottages called “Buckingham Palace” by the locals. The first, 201, the one farthest from the church as if by design, was a blue painted House of Pleasure called the “Casbah”. In it lived Mary and The Girls. Next to them at 203, painted bright pink, was “Winsor Park” (spelled like that), which was occupied by Zoot and The Boys. Then came 205, the cottage of The Jungles, then ours, then at 209 that of Last-Knight the barber, his wife and three daughters. A sprawling open field overgrown with weeds and rusty tin cans separated Buckingham Palace from the church.
Friday evenings were warm and relaxed.
We felt mellow because it was the weekend and payday. While my sister got dressed to go to the Star or National Bioscope with her boyfriend, since there was no time for her to cook I was sent to Millard’s Fish and Chips shop beyond Tennant Street to get the evening’s supper. I raced with the South Easter and then forced my way into the shop crowded with customers, the air thick with the smell of stale sawdust, boiling fish oil and sweaty bodies as steam rose from the frying pans. When I had wriggled my way through the forest of grownup legs and torsos, I found myself jammed against the counter, always just too late to order from the last batch of fish and chips, and then had to wait, fighting to prevent the breath from being squeezed out of my body, until the next batch of gleaming stockfish and thick fingers of potato chips were hoisted, dripping oil and spewed out onto the warmers. On the way home I raced to keep the parcels hot, but not so fast that I could not pierce a small hole in the packet and remove a few chips. But this was finally detected by my hawkeyed mother, who knew what was happening in spite of my denials.
Saturdays and Sundays were different.
Saturday mornings were brisk, for some men must work and all women must shop. And Hanover Street was crowded and the bazaars and fish market did a roaring trade. There were groceries to buy on the book and clothes on hire purchase.
Katzen, who was the landlord of Buckingham Palace, had his emporium on the corner of Hanover and Tennant Streets. His shop windows were cluttered with bric-a-brac such as celluloid dolls, huge glass tankards still celebrating the Coronation, rolls of crepe de Chine, gramophones and framed and mounted prints of a violently pink-faced King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. After his premises had been broken into six times in so many weeks, Katzen displayed a notice outside his shop, “Although Katzen has been burgled again, Katzen will never burgle you!” We all knew that there was no chance of the small, Jewish shopkeeper with his walrus moustache and large feet ever climbing through our back windows to steal our radios, but we also felt that he could rob us in other ways. The thieves always seemed to steal his gramophones and crepe de Chine and patriotically left the prints of King George VI and his queen.
Saturday mornings Tennant Street, Hanover Street and Castle Bridge heaved and bustled with housewives, peddlers, skollies, urchins, pimps and everybody else. Everybody bought everything on lay-bye and it was all written down in exercise books; Moodley, the Indian general dealer in Caledon Street, scribbled it on the back of brown paper bags which he lost when he absent-mindedly used them as containers for sugar beans or rice. Everyone also knew they would have to pay in the end, even those who owed Moodley, although when that end was, was extremely flexible and it could be next week or next year or next never.
Near Seven Steps Mr Angelo Baptiste owned a dark Italian shop from the ceiling of which hung strings of garlic. His shop also smelt of macaroni and olive oil. We would tease him in order to hear him swearing volubly in his native language.
On Saturday afternoons I went to Star Bioscope with Estelle, Manne and Broertjie to see that week’s exciting episode of Zorro Rides Again in black and white. We could not stand in any queue to get in because the idea of queues had not yet reached District Six. So we pushed and tugged and sweated to slip through the narrow opening in the iron gates, which would allow us into the foyer where we could purchase tickets. Estelle, who never feared anyone, simply climbed onto the nearest pair of shoulders at the back of the heaving mass and then crawled over heads. Once through the gates, we bought our tickets to sit on the hard seats downstairs, where ushers in soiled, prison-warder khaki, shouted loudly and forced us to share seats with whomever they shoved down beside us. If you raised any objections you were meanly clouted. (One sadistic usher took to riding up and down the aisle on a bicycle, lashing out with his belt at any unfortunate urchin who provoked his displeasure.) When Estelle, resplendent in his cowboy shirt, three-quarter pants and high-heeled boots arrived late and stood in the lighted entrance, he would cup his hands to his mouth and blow a loud strident whistle which only he could blow. It rose above the packed and heaving auditorium to Manne, who sat in the furthermost corner tight between his girl and the one he was keeping for Estelle. Manne, heeding the whistle of his leader, would throw lighted matches into the air, regardless of anyone on whom it landed, like a ship sending up distress flares. And then Estelle would wade over seats and frightened urchins in a straight line to his minion and the girl reserved for him.
We sat goggle-eyed in the thick, cigarette-smoke dark, watching Zorro carve out Zs with his whip on the foreheads of those crooks stupid enough to challenge his dexterity with inferior weapons like six-guns. We munched our way through half loaves of split-open brown bread that had whole pieces of fried fish placed in between. Estelle, who was a successful pickpocket, always paid for the refreshments. When they played the movie of Hamlet, Estelle whistled and shouted derisively that it was a lot of balls, and Alfie, who was in Junior Certificate at Trafalgar High and a budding critic, said the outjie spoke far too much and who ever saw a ghost that looked like that.
And in the evenings we would stand in hushed doorways and tell stories about the legendary figures of District Six, Zoot, Pretty-Boy and Mary, or show off about our prowess with the local girls, or just talk about the ways of white folks and how Cissie Gool was fighting for us and showing the white people a thing or two. And how wonderful it was to live in America and talk like Charles Starrett and sing like Gene Autry. The young men went to parties or bioscope, and the older men played dominoes and klawerjas on the stoeps, holding the huge boards between them on their laps, and when they banged down the dominoes or the cards, hordes of flies would spin up and then settle down again. The young girls waited for the men to fetch them, all coy, demure and made up in the latest fashions. The older housewives came out with their wooden benches and sat apart from the men on the stoep and gossiped the mild evening away.
And the apricot warmth of a summer Sunday morning when almost everyone slept late and mouldy cocks kept in postage-stamp, asphalt yards crowed their confined calls to wake no one in particular. Then the sun rose over-ripe although it was barely six o’clock and the whole District was snoring and blowing away the fumes of Saturday evening. The gaiety and sheer abandonment of the previous night had given way to the exhausted sleep of Sunday morning.
I would be sent to buy koeksisters for breakfast at a house next to Bernstein’s Bottle Store, where three unmarried Muslim sisters lived. Their house always smelled of aniseed and rose water. I would stand in the dark passage awaiting my turn, watching them fry the light dough until it was golden brown, then dip it hot and sugary into coconut. They had taken a liking to me and always gave me an extra one wrapped separately, which I ate on the way back.
When the first people had woken from their smoke-filled sleep, the more righteous washed themselves in zinc tubs in their yards or kitchens (with the curtains drawn), then put on their Sunday best and searched for hymn books and bibles neglected during the rest of the week. They put on tight patent-leather shoes, had a hurried breakfast of hot coffee and koeksisters, and walked wincingly up Caledon Street to attend the morning service at St Mark’s. Those less virtuous tossed dreamlessly, fading out the monotony of the week before at the same job in the same factory for the same wages, which were never enough for groceries and rent and a bit of booze and maybe an evening with the girls at Mary’s.
At midday we were served with the heaviest meal of the week. We sat around the dining-room table stiff and uncomfortable in our navy-blue best. After a long drawn-out grace we started with curry and yellow rice rich with raisins and cinnamon. The curry was pale and anaemic because my aunt, who always lunched with us on Sundays, claimed to suffer from acid winds. But after that we had thick slices of roast and potatoes smothered in gravy, and red beetroot salad. And finally jelly and custard and sometimes bread or rice pudding.
In the afternoon, when the adults were snoring heavily, we children would roam the streets, always careful not to soil our Sunday suits. On rare occasions we ventured downtown to the Museum to see the models of Bushmen with big bums or furtively glance at the nude statues in the Art Galleries. What a wicked and enjoyable place the world was. What goings-on. And then we walked back through the Botanical Gardens whooping and shouting and raising havoc deliberately to frighten fragile little white ladies sitting on quiet benches, who would then complain to the attendants about those rude slum children.
Back home the darkness descended from Table Mountain and the streetlamps flickered to life at the tops of their stalks, leaving pools of light at their bases in which we played our games till called inside because it was school tomorrow. It was always school tomorrow on Sunday evenings when we were enjoying ourselves, even when we knew it was vacation time. The hush crept over the District as one by one the lights were switched off or paraffin lamps blown out until there was only the basin of darkness at the foot of the mountain illumined by rows of lamppost stalks. The streets would empty until in the small hours there were only stray dogs, prowling cats, solitary drunks and hawkers’ carts leaning awkwardly with their long shafts against the walls. And I still clearly remember the characters and the incidents.