As an act of defiance against the start of term, the boys and I decided to treat school days (well, the afternoons at least) as if they were still holidays. This meant going to the beach.
Because of my recent obsession with Instagram, I take my camera everywhere with me. And so it was, that whilst the boys were frolicking in the waves, I was bumbling along the shoreline looking for good photo ops. After all, I’d bumped into Ninja just a few weeks before so who knows who’d pop up next.
As I mooched around the shallows, I spotted a guy a little way off. He had a camera phone pointed my way and said something to me that got drowned out by the noise of the waves. Thinking that he was asking me a question, I walked closer and said “pardon, I didn’t hear you”.
“I was just taking a photo of you”, he said.
I was immediately suspicious. Let’s just say that I’m not really the sort of beach person that other beach people take photos of. Although there was something slightly unsettling about his demeanor, I decided to let it slide, putting my suspicions down to my apartheid upbringing. I rationalized that despite his rather piercing eyes and penetrating gaze, his face was pleasant enough and when he smiled he revealed a cheery “Cape Flats smile”*.
Besides, I’d remembered reading somewhere that if you’re feeling unnerved by someone, the best tactic to disarm them is by being friendly. I gave it a whirl.
“A perfect day to be at the beach, eh?” I say.
“Yaaas”, he answers in a broad Cape-coloured accent, “I just came here with my gurly. You know, instead of sitting at home yuss sitting aroun bored”.
I look around. No gurly.
“Great”, I say, “where is she then? Your gurly?”
“She’s visiting with some friends”, he replied “I dropped her off”.
“Ah, so you guys live around here”, I say.
“Nou”, he replies “I live in “Monrthehadfashdf”.
OK, so I didn’t hear exactly what he said but as I had never heard of it, I assumed it was farther afield than what my uptight whitey legs had ever taken me.
We exchanged small talk and then went our separate ways. Or so I thought.
Not long after our encounter, the fellow reappears in his swimming trunks. He enters the water. But not a little way off where his belongings are, rather right in front of me. Free country, I thought to myself, though at the same finding it a little odd considering the long stretch of available beach. I again rationalized that crime-wary South Africans are far too suspicious.
After a short swim, he gets out of the sea and starts walking towards me. It’s then that I catch sight of his tattoos.
Prison tattoos. Holey crab cakes, I think to myself.
Thinking quickly I say “Hey!” (as if we’re long lost friends). I was hoping the excitement in my voice would hide my mild panic.
“Great tattoos”, I say, whilst all the while thinking fecking hell, they’re not great tattoos. They’re not great tattoos at all because they’re gangster tattoos and they all mean something fiercely wicked and I know this thanks to “The Number” and “Ninja”.
Still, a meeting this up-close and personal with an ex-con was just too interesting to pass up.
“I youzyouly doh like taking my shert aff becoz the people, they think bedly of me man”.
Now, I’m not sure about you, but on the whole, I was raised – as many South African’s are – to be polite to strangers and, wherever possible, make them feel welcome and at ease. Perhaps, with ex-cons, this isn’t a very good idea.
“No way!” I hear myself swoon, “I think they’re AWESOME”.
He looks slightly bashful but takes all this encouragement as a sign to sit down alongside me. No wait, not alongside, but RIGHT NEXT to me. We could practically pick each other’s noses.
“I love tattoos”, I gush (I mean I do but WTF?!?!?) “What do yours mean?”
“I wuss in a geng”, he says shyly.
“Ah”, I say, trying to sound philosophical, “which one?”, all the while hoping he says the 26’s because rather a swindler than the other two.
“Da 27’s” he says.
“Ah, so your tattoos probably mean something”, I say and mumble something about having read Johnny Steinberg’s book.
He looks sheepish and replies “I got them a long time ago. Sometimes a tattoos, they can mean someting. Like if I’m in prisson and I get my gurly’s name tattoo’d on my chess, it means someting. But sometimes, they can mean nutting.”
As he looks away both he and I know that his tattoos don’t mean nothing.
I’m suddenly so curious. I can’t help myself asking.
“You were in prison?” I say, feigning surprise. “Where? In Pollsmoor?”
“Yaaas”, he answers “I was in prison but not at Pollsmoor”.
‘Ah”, I say, trying to sound light and conversational, as though he were recounting his yearly travels. I stop short of saying well nice to meet you. you’re the first ex-prisoner I’ve ever met, because I feel it’s important for him to think that I mix with ex-cons all the time and that’s why I’m so wys*.
“Where were you then?”
“I moved from place to place” he says.
“Um, why do they move prisoners?” I hear myself say, all the while presuming it’s because of some kind of shanking or equally wicked activity.
“Well”, he says, “I wuss in prisin for eight yeears and I got tieyid of the fighting and violence and killing and I aksed them to move me away from the gengs”.
My mind is reeling at the words “eight years”** but I interject with an old, lame tactic I hope everyone uses and that isn’t unique to my lame-ass.
I relate to this dear, wretched man. You know, to make him feel like I understand him entirely.
“I hear you”, I say, “eventually all the violence, killing and fighting just gets too much.”
WTF?!?!?!? For crying in a bucket, relating to your girlfriend when she’s had an argy-bargy with her bloke is one thing, but for hamcheesesakes, did I really think this guy was going to believe I had ANY idea what true violence was? I think of showing him my tattoos just to prove to him that deep down we’re all the same but then imagine him inwardly scoffing at my timid little snowflake ink.
I realised something else alarming. When you’re polite to someone, its really tricky to suddenly be rude. Like say if you were getting a bit nervy and wanted to walk away.
What I sincerely wanted to say to Mr PrisonTattoos is “well this has been a smashing conversation, but I’d like you to leave now and go home so that when my kids come ashore you’re long gone.”
But I don’t say that. We carry on talking and, to my horror, my kids come towards us.
Adding to my horror, I hear myself (who, for the love of God has taken over my mouth?!?!) say to my sons, a la Tannie-en-Oom-styl*** “say hello to the nice gentleman” when what I really wanted to say was “Run! Run for your lives!”
This surely takes the proverbial cake. As much as my fantasies of a Pygmalion-type scenario playing out are entrenched, surely one HAS to draw the line at protecting one’s kids?
In desperation, I fabricate another fantasy.
“Guys, we have to leave right now. Dad will be home shortly and we’re going out”. I think of adding “To Rio. Forever”, but think better of it because then MrPrisonTattoos might think we’re loaded and try to shank us for some money.
Equally fantastically, for once the boys don’t ask a million questions about where we’re going? And why we had to leave the beach so soon? And why dad would be home so early? I suspect they could smell my fear.
Between the look of MrPrisonTattoos and my fear, TFTF and MrPP asked a million questions on the drive between the beach and home (did I mention we took a 26km detour via Scarborough? You know, incase this wicked man was following us …on foot.)
For the next 48 hours I fielded a million questions from the boys regarding prisons, prisoners and gangs, causing me to Google things like ‘prison tattoos - meaning’, ‘number gangs’ and ‘what to say when you meet an ex-gangster.
But apparently you don’t say anything to an ex-gangster. Because there’s no such thing.