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
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