57 Church Street, Turffontein, we start in the south of Johannesburg. Take your mind back to the seventies first, the post hippy era that saw bell bottom pants and disco music, or the birth of metal rock if you prefer, whatever your choice, it was a time of originality, the music represented the lifestyle and fitted the era, funky and fresh. A different kind of freedom was enjoyed, clothing was bright and comfortable, and everyone had long wavy hair. A time when women married young, and the men had an old school code of honour and strength about them that we lack today. Men were men, the world was easy, life itself was so much simpler in every way, a man could have a simple job and still provide for his stay at home wife and kids, and for the kid’s school was easy, maths was basic plus and minus, sometimes divide, having a standard 5 (grade 7) meant you could get a trade. A blacksmith, a carpenter, a café owner could provide, and still easily afford a family vacation at the end of the year, cars cost 1600 Rand brand new, 120 Rand was enough for petrol to get you to Cape town from Johannesburg and you still had enough change to buy food for everyone along the way, no toll gates, very little crime. Children played in the streets, simple games like soccer or cricket that could be enjoyed anywhere, even used tyres were fun as kids would climb into the hollow of the inner and roll down the hills at Christofferson Park, children walked anywhere and everywhere, coming home only when it got dark, teenagers partied all night and enjoyed uncomplicated pleasures that we don’t get anymore. If you stood for something you did it straight up, a more physical direct approach, no bullshit, and they all had the same moustaches too.
Turffontein developed from the racecourse which started in 1887, horse racing and breeding provided a means for employment for most that lived there, almost a hundred years later it moved into a middle or working class area. The houses were all very similar, built in squares with walls dividing to create 2 or 3 bedrooms, a lounge and kitchen, ceilings were made of pressed patterned metal, kitchens had polished stone floors and the bedrooms and lounge had pine boards. The toilets were outside originally, having to change plumbing and drainage systems through the fifties and sixties to accommodate. The streets were straight and divided housing patterns into blocks, almost precisely, a town built out of hundreds of little squares, like the time, direct and easy. A lane separated you from your back neighbour, the lanes were originally used to collect rubbish from once a week, putting the bags or boxes into a section cut out the back wall. You would leave the empty glass milk bottles with a coin on top outside the door on weekday nights as the milkman would collect the empties and leave new ones for you early the next morning, as would the fruit and vegetable man, a box of assorted for the new week, they came to you then. Yes, a time of strength, honesty and freedom.
John Solomon Mitchell, a hard man, simple and straight forward, a mountain of a man, not just in size but mentally too, but stubborn just the same. John Mitchell was my Grandfather, but very few people called him John, he was Jack to us his family, but Jock to his friends in the boxing community. Jack had four children, Lynette, Beverley, Janet and Billy, Billy was the apple of his eye, his only son, being a father in the seventies meant you had to be a hard man. Hard on your kids but you did it because you loved them, only you showed it in a different way, by making them tough, it was just that way, men loved by being hard and strict, and providing, if you did that you were a good parent and a good father. Beverley was my Mother, and Jacks house was at 57 Church Street in Turffontein. Jack was hardest on Billy, and took him to boxing from a young age, Jack was a boxing coach, for the old school south boys, Billy’s friends, among others, were men like Aubrey Lovett, Lionel Hunter and Rocky Wainstein. There was one thing Jack would always tell them at training ‘Don’t ever take any shit from anybody, ever!’, and that seemed to have stuck. These were fearless men who made their name in violent confrontations, never hesitating to back down in any fight or any situation and always very physical in getting their point across. Billy Mitchell was a springbok boxer, but he made his name in the street, as his friends did, moulding their reputations that started there and then, it still is a big deal in the south today, this ‘reputation’ thing. But it was different then, it was done with a sense of honour, a way to find mutual ground, enemies became friends this way, sifting the strong and brave from the others, and these brave stuck together after, and if you didn’t, at least they knew who you were and where you stood. There was a sense of ‘if you could survive this, then you were man enough for us, and man enough for the world’.
My Mother met and married a man when she was 15 years old, Jerry Shaw, my father, but I can’t call him that, to me he was Jerry. My oldest brother, Vincent, was born on the 16th of January 1975, I was born on the 5th of August 1976, Wesley on the 30th of May 1978 and Jonathan on the 10th of August 1981. I don’t remember much of Jerry when they were married, only that he was abusive toward my Mother. Technically he was an intelligent man, and by technically I mean he had a good technical mind in the sense that he knew how all the parts of a motor car engine fitted together and what to look for if ever there was a problem, and a charismatic man, but he lacked the courage of his peers, what respect he didn’t get in the world, he got at home, to remind himself that he was still a man somehow, if he backed down in an argument anywhere else, he finished it later with my Mother, as she had to take the brunt of his misplaced and confusing outbursts and rage. Just after the birth of my youngest brother Jonathan, now in the early eighties, she finally had enough of his abuse, he went too far with it one day and she left him, he came home to find us all gone, my Mother took us to Jack’s house as she explained her situation to him, quite unaware of the extent of the abuse, Jack took us in. The next day, Vincent, Wesley and I were sitting with the domestic worker, Iris, Jerry got there and ordered us into his car and he drove us to his work, as we sat there quietly confused, pulled out of the house and brought there so suddenly, unsure of what was going on. My Mother returned to Jacks house to find us gone, Iris told her that Jerry had picked us up. And she went for him, something snapped, perhaps the pinnacle of her abuse or that he took her children, I’m not sure, but she snapped, she stormed into his workshop shouting at him, and ordered us out, he grabbed and then pushed her one last time, she looked at him coldly, and back to us, something in her eyes changed, they were different, like a flick of a switch, new in a way, an instinctive way, a natural right to protect your children kind of way,guiding us out the door first, she picked up a half broken brick and walked back inside, I heard Jerry “Oh and what are you gonna do with that?” he barely finished and BAH! She cracked him on the temple with it, a second and a third blow. This was so unlike her, this small, composed, loving woman, turned into a warrior that could not and would not take anymore, he got to know the fighter in Beverley that day. He lay there moaning in the foetal position, she turned and left, and that was that, done.
Back to Jack’s house, now Jack’s house had 3 bedrooms, the main room was 4 by 4 metres and was just on the right as you stepped through the front door, you would walk through the passage and hear the hollow under the carpeted pine floor as you did, the lounge on your left as the passage ended, just after the passage began the dark polished stone floor that took you into the kitchen, a large kitchen, roughly 8 by 5 metres, the second room on the left of the kitchen was Billy’s room, 3 by 4 metres, the third room on the right was also large, 8 by 4 metres, my Mother, brothers and I stayed in that room.
A few days after, there was a knock on the open door, it was Jerry, Jack was busy preparing chicken in the kitchen but dropped it as he realised who it was.
“Hello Uncle Jack, is Beverley here?” Jerry said timidly, still bearing the dark red scars the sharp edges of the brick left, he took one step inside, Jack went swiftly down the passage and took Jerry back through the door, grabbing his shirt at the chest, Jerry almost levitated back with this firm grip as he ended hard against the pillar at the end of the stoep, like I said Jack was a strong man, Jerry tried to untwine the grip but Jacks steel grasp never budged.
“You put your hands on my child!” Jack squeezed through his clenched jaw, with a death stare in his eye, he pushed Jerry harder against and up the pillar, “Listen carefully little man, leave right now, don’t ever come back, if I catch you anywhere near my daughter and her boys, I will kill you!” and he meant it. Jerry dropped as the grip released, not saying a word, knowing the seriousness in those words, he just turned and walked away. A man’s true strength is his beliefs, Yes Jack did threaten him, but if Jerry believed in his own children enough and in that he was our father, he would have made some kind of a stand, but he just walked away. Jack returned to the kitchen, and continued with the chicken curry he was famous for. We never saw Jerry again for the next ten years after that.
Jack was a boilermaker by trade and his father was a blacksmith before him, and his backyard had a shed filled with sheet metal and iron bars, other metal objects lay around, remnants of solid iron machinery parts exchanged and then forgotten, some had been there so long they rusted through so much that even the soil was red beneath them, chickens ran free and pecked all day at the grassless dusty red ground, pecking at only what they could see, even to this day, if I see chickens peck or smell that chicken coop smell, or even see those scales on their feet, I think back to those days when I was around five or six years old, in that backyard, to those chickens, strange how some specific smell or sight can take you back to your childhood. Others that come to mind are cottage pie and that hospital smell, I was in hospital at maybe four years old, to have grommets inserted in my ears, and they gave me cottage pie, I remember that hard mash potato crust with a cheap saucy mince underneath, I was nauseas trying to eat it but had to, so now days if I see or smell cottage pie, I get that nauseas feeling in my stomach again. The other, that hospital smell, that chemical used to disinfect and clean the walls and floors always takes me back, but with mixed emotions here, that hospital smell makes me think of life and death together, a sickening thought and feeling of deaths reality, but of life’s miracle too, both so contradictory like water and oil constantly swirling to join but never to be, a ying and yang of confused emotions. People die in hospitals, as they are born.
A Fig tree stood just outside the back door and there were two rooms in this backyard, one a tin room that the gardener, Majola, stayed in. Majola stayed there on the condition he kept the yard clean once a week, Majola was a drunk, but never a nuisance, whatever issues he had he kept to himself, he walked with a limp, slurred when he spoke and he had a chunk of his skull taken out the back of his head, probably as a teen by some accident or beating, about the size of a thumb, it had closed up as the skin had grown over it, but very noticeable. Whether he slurred because of this old wound or whether he slurred because he was permanently drunk, or whether he drank so much because he slurred, I still don’t know. The other room was a brick garage converted into a room that Iris stayed in, she was always there through all the years, Iris was the ever faithful domestic worker, there even until even I was an adult.
We continued to stay with Jack for a year or so after that, until my Mother met another man, Johan Hilton.