My suitcase: Truth is indeed stranger than fiction

November 23, 2009 § 4 Comments

I don’t keep my skeletons in a closet, I keep them in a suitcase. It’s much easier to flee with a suitcase in hand when the authorities come. This way you can run away with your evidence. This is why I prefer suitcases.

When I lived in Cape Town, a friend of mine used to keep his condoms in his suitcase because he was too embarrassed to keep them anywhere near where his elderly cleaning lady would see them. From what he told me I gathered that she was too old to be the same age as his mother, but too young to be his grandmother’s age. She was that age in African culture that doesn’t permit you to tell her what to do, even though she works for you. I digress, as usual. I blame this on my short attention spa…

Mine, the suitcase that is, has a far more interesting story than condom storage. It had been stolen or lost and I found it under the most unbelievable circumstances — worthy of an episode of Ripley’s Believe It or Not.

The suitcase in question was my mother’s pride and joy. She was proud of a lot of things she had, but this suitcase was rarely used. It was used on special occasions, for special trips, much like the special cups, plates and cutlery that only ever saw the light of day when there were super-special visitors. When I left Mdantsane (a township just outside East London, famous for producing boxing champions, the likes of Welcome Ncitha, Bungu and others) many years ago to go study advertising in the bustling metropolis of Cape Town in the Western Cape, she gave it to me. There was no need to lecture me to look after it because I knew how she loved it.

Cut to two years later when I had to leave it in my church for safe keeping until I could find new accommodation.

One day, after many months I went back to the church to collect it from storage. It was not there. The rapture perhaps? I wondered. I was assured that no rapture had taken place. No one knew where it was. It had mysteriously vanished in the Bermuda Triangle of the church. I assumed it had either been stolen or had disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle of Christian generosity – with other people’s stuff. I figured someone saw a suitcase filled with clothes and decided to give it away. My heart sank. What would I tell my mother? I was not worried about the clothes. I was worried about the suitcase.

For the next year, whenever I went home my mother would ask me where it was. I would tell her it was in Cape Town, of course I never told her I didn’t know where in Cape Town. I think she knew something had happened to it.

It was a dark, stormy Saturday night. Seriously. It was a dark and stormy night the day before I found it under the most unbelievable circumstances, Steven Spielberg couldn’t come up with a story line like this. It was dark, because that tends to happen at night. Stormy though is not something that happens that often at night. The winds howled, branches snapped off trees, dogs whimpered in the unusual weather. Little did I know that when I woke up the next day I would find my long-lost suitcase.

As I was getting ready for church that Sunday morning I got an SMS informing myself along with all the members of my church that there would be no service that morning. There had been a tornado that had ripped people’s homes apart in Manenberg and Gugulethu. It was our duty as members of the church to help people move their belongings and give clothes to those who had lost everything. And so, I went to my wardrobe and put on my Sunday worst. I could foresee a lot of physical labour ahead. Off I went for my Christian duties.

To cut a long narrative short, after moving furniture and rubble from four affected homes I was summoned to a fifth house. It was in this house where I would find the long-lost suitcase. Perhaps I should narrate this part in the present tense.

I step into the typical township four-roomed RDP house with a sense of purpose, if not a little tired from the manual labour I had just endured. The first thing I see in this humble home, which had been humbled even further by nature’s unforgiving force, are three broken bricks on a dented wet stove. Where the roof used to be is a blue innocent sky, pleading not guilty. My eye sees something familiar in the bedroom. It is a bedspread. It looks remarkably like the one I used to have. What are the chances, I think to myself. But, right next to the bed is my mother’s suitcase. It is soaking from last night’s rain. I say nothing. I help move various items out of the house to an unscathed neighbour’s house. My mind starts working.

Dilemma. What do I do? These people have just lost their house, what do I do. I summon some courage and ask to speak to the owner of the house. Her face looks like it has aged in the hours after the tornado even though I’ve never seen her. As I speak to her she almost doesn’t even see me. All I see are the many questions on her numb face. Where am I going to sleep? Where will my children sleep? How am I going to repair my house? She turns to look at me with her heart-broken eyes. As I begin to speak to her I can feel my eyes well a little. How do I tell her I want the suitcase after she has just lost everything? I tell her that the duvet is mine and so are sheets and so is the brown suitcase. She looks at me, for the first time, she sees me. “My son got that suitcase and what’s in the suitcase,” she says.

I tell her calmly that it is my mother’s suitcase, I don’t mean anything bad by it. Her eyes accuse me of accusing her son of being a thief. Her son walks in. He is wearing my clothes. I don’t know how you got it and I don’t want to know, it is not something we can discuss now. I tell her she can keep everything all I want is the suitcase. She says fine, prove it’s yours. She is a tough woman even under these circumstances. I open a secret compartment within the case and extract photos of me and my family. She looks at me sheepishly and gives her son a look only a disapproving mother can give. I unpack whatever is in the suitcase and I take it with me. Guilt-ridden but at least I had my mother’s suitcase.

My mother still doesn’t know that it took a tornado for me to find her suitcase. I keep it in the closet now. It is the skeleton in my closet. I guess not any more now that it’s a blog.

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