Dogs, me and the bliss of soli­tude

The Al­sa­tian had a big heart and would al­ways be the first to find me when we played hide-and-seek

Financial Mail - Investors Monthly - - One Last Thing -

Be­ing alone comes easily. Hours of un­in­ter­rupted read­ing, drink­ing tea at my blue ta­ble, watch­ing the re­flec­tions on the lake, pot­ter­ing in the gar­den with just a dog and a cat for com­pany or walk­ing are all like pure oxy­gen.

The most pre­cious dis­cov­ery of my free-range child­hood was find­ing this world of my own, a place where my mother said I lived. A bois­ter­ous and dis­rup­tive crea­ture in the class­room, out­side of it I changed. Off with the school uni­form and on with the faded black PT shorts and the t-shirt, and then an ad­ven­ture would hap­pen.

The out­skirts of Mthatha were thor­oughly ex­plored, hours from the house, on foot, and stealth­ily we stalked ad­ven­ture in the long blonde grass and un­der the aca­cias — an Al­sa­tian and a Labrador were my part­ners. Man, we went places. Across the rail lines to open coun­try­side be­hind the univer­sity and the for­bid­den veld be­hind South­ern­wood, where the po­lice found a hu­man head that was thought to be from a muti mur­der years be­fore. Even to the very for­bid­den quarry with its pen­ta­gram graf­fiti and bro­ken booze bot­tles. Some­times.

And then, on the way back home, of­ten — if it was hot — a swim or wade in the Owen Dam and a cau­tious pass­ing by the sta­bles on the other side of the wa­ter. That was where a woman called Ma­rina lived; story was she had taught her horses to fight. I never saw the horses fight­ing, but then you couldn’t get too close be­cause ev­ery­one knew she was ter­ri­fy­ing and hated chil­dren.

Some­times the ad­ven­ture would be at home. The Lab, Zeb, loved to play games. I taught him to climb into a big fork of the wil­low tree in the front gar­den. He knew how to jump minia­ture horse jumps and could sit at a ta­ble on a chair and eat out of his bowl with his paws on each side of it. His other favourite thing was go­ing for joy rides in the wheel­bar­row. The long drive­way, which was slightly sloped, was per­fect to ac­cel­er­ate out of, with Zebbie ly­ing down in the wide bar­row, fac­ing for­ward, eyes shin­ing, tongue lolling. I ran up and down the drive as fast as I could. Re­peat­edly. He never tired of it.

Solo, the Al­sa­tian, was a more cau­tious col­lab­o­ra­tor. He would oblige to the ex­tent of agree­ing to get into the wheel­bar­row, but not on your nelly would he take the full trip down the drive­way. But he had a big heart and would al­ways be the first to find me when we played hide-and-seek. This en­tailed the dogs be­ing told to sit and wait. They al­ways al­most ex­ploded. Then I would back away as much as 50m un­til I could duck be­low the grass seed heads and scram­ble to find a bet­ter place. Then I would whis­tle.

Some­times we would hang out with the neigh­bour­hood kids, ex­plore and van­dalise build­ing sites, tres­pass in far-flung garages and play-fight with sticks.

But mostly I re­mem­ber be­ing alone, or with the dogs.

Six months af­ter I turned 13 I was sent to an all-white, all-girls’ board­ing school in Queen­stown. You were not al­lowed to go any­where. Nowhere was alone; there were no dogs, there was no veld. Just rules and peo­ple all the time. It took months for me to find “le­gal” spa­ces to linger alone.

I had “trou­ble ad­just­ing” and I was in trou­ble all the time. All the time. Within 18 months the head­mistress warned my par­ents I would have to be re­moved be­cause I cre­ated noth­ing but an­ar­chy.

The next year, wor­ried about my an­tipa­thy to ev­ery­thing, I was taken to “see some­one” and was told I had acute de­pres­sion.

Luck­ily that same year we got a new head­mas­ter, the first man to run the school in its 115-year history. He un­der­stood a lit­tle bit about chil­dren.

In­stead of pun­ish­ing me af­ter I was re­ported for wan­der­ing around the school cam­pus again and dis­ap­pear­ing to a nearby piece of veld he asked me why I kept dis­ap­pear­ing. What was I do­ing?

I don’t do any­thing, I told him. I just sit alone. He said it was OK, as long as I didn’t go too far or tell any­one about it; and that I should tell him if I had any prob­lems.

It didn’t make ev­ery­thing bet­ter, but it helped. Thank you, Richard Ed­kins. As an adult, be­ing alone has been eas­ier, though it can be dif­fi­cult to ex­plain to friends and my part­ner. Not an­swer­ing the phone or show­ing up for things is less com­pli­cated than say­ing I need to be alone.

That just never sounds like enough of an ex­pla­na­tion.

You were not al­lowed to go any­where, nowhere was alone, no dogs, no veld

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