I hated driving through the Durban CBD as a young girl. I hated the way the leather car seats ripped off the skin on my thighs like leg wax. How the humidity coated my cheeks like Vaseline and the seatbelt buckle scorched my fingers like a pot.
It was 1998. It was hot. And it was terrifying.
“Lock your door. Quickly!” my mother would spit into the review mirror, shoving her handbag under the seat and sweating at every red light.
With my back ironed stiff in fear, I would watch the palm trees and people blur passed the window. Sulking because I couldn’t open my window to smell the sea.
In the nineties, Point Road* was one of Durban City’s most notorious streets. Renowned for drugs, crime and sex work; this was apparently not the place for small-town little white girls like me.
But this was the street where my Granny lived. “Opposite the ‘Nigerian’ shebeen,” according to Granny’s directions at least. This was the street where Granny’s neighbour was stabbed for ten bucks in her purse and children were abducted by men in big black coats. According to Granny’s news updates at least.
Every time we arrived for our monthly visit to Granny, I knew I had to prepare my wrists for the grip of my mother’s hands. She would clutch them like a hockey stick and dribble me passed the men whistling from the sidelines of the street. “Don’t make eye contact,” my mother would remind me, stretching her till-lady work skirt further over her knees.
In silence, I would run, watching my mother’s worn heels pound the concrete like mallets. My meatless frame hardening like cement.
How quickly I became another statue that couldn’t chase the pigeons.
Granny’s flat smelled of sour milk and cigarettes. Soap operas blared from the TVs down the hallway and paint peeled like chapped lips from the walls. The carpets were yellow and sticky – “like old earwax”, my mother and I would giggle as we hiked the stairs. Fanning our armpits and fixing our hair.
To escape the earwax floor and the booze on Granny’s breath, I would wiggle up the only window in her flat. “Watch out for the pigeon crap,” Granny would rasp from her swamp of half-mended charity shop clothes and the Voyager on her lip.
While my mother tended to the empty bottles and the blood stains on Granny’s bandaged wrists, I would squint down onto the spectacular theatre of the street.
From up here, I could see the vendors’ apples stacked like perfect green pyramids. I could taste the boiled mielies simmering on the street corners. I could smell the hair relaxer oozing from the salons. I could hear the whistles from the taxis bounce through the buildings like a giant game of ping-pong. I could feel the breath from the sea and the toxins of city fill my tiny lungs.
Dangling my feet somewhere between Point Road and the sky, I began to daydream about this city… The city that years later I would come to love. The city that years later I would come to navigate alone. Long after my hips had spread. Long after HIV/AIDS had shriveled and starved Granny’s body like burnt plastic. Long after Granny’s flat was left for nothing but the pigeons to peck.
The city. The wicked place where I was told to walk with my head down. The playground in which my body became apparent. The concrete paradise that both antagonized and seduced my girlhood.
The city. Another enchanted faraway land in which I wondered if a woman could ever unashamedly exist.
*Point Road has since been renamed to Mahatma Gandhi Road but most locals still know it as Point Road.
**Please Note: The Durban CBD is a magical place which I love, continue to explore and grow to understand. This story does not intend to perpetuate negative stereotypes about Durban City, nor men, nor women. But it does intend to express one experience of a woman/women in the public space. The “fear” so often ingrained from misconception. And ultimately just one moment of a young girl’s coming of age in a complex South African environment. I no longer perceive the city in this way. But that does not discredit the fact that I once did.
***Photographic Artwork by Robyn Perros.