Book extract: Stones Against the Mirror by Hugh Lewin
In this edited extract from his book Stones Against the Mirror (Umuzi), Hugh Lewin meditates on certainty.
Throw a clatter of memories at the mirror of your life and watch as the pieces scatter on the ground. There is no pattern. They glint in the shadows, demanding inspection, as you hesitate to choose which one you’ll pick up first. Some pieces choose themselves, however much you try to avoid them.
It is the final nightmare, the unanswered accusation. We said we would not hurt anybody. We insisted our cause was honourable and we always chose targets that would cause no human harm.
Then the bomb at Park Station. One of our group planted it.
And it harmed.
Four weeks after the bomb, a 77-year-old grandmother died from her injuries. Twenty-two others were seriously hurt, including a 21-year-old who was eight months pregnant. And the grandmother’s 12-year-old granddaughter, named Glynnis.
My friend John Harris was executed eight months later for the old lady’s death.
Glynnis, the granddaughter. Sixty per cent of her body was burnt. She spent seven and a half months in hospital, and had 35 operations. At 20, she moved to the United Kingdom because the South African sun was too hard on her skin. “My lewe is nutteloos”—my life is worthless. “There’s nothing left for me,” she told a journalist. “Other women of my age have a house, a husband, a family. I have nothing. What prospect is there for me?” She has to work, she said, in agterkamertjies, back rooms, out of the public eye. She never goes out.
I try to imagine what she looks like. I can’t. When John’s bomb went off, we were in solitary confinement and they kept us apart, totally isolated. No newspaper reports, no broadcasts, no photographs.
I did not plant the bomb. I didn’t know about it. I hope I would have had the strength to oppose the idea if anyone had suggested it. But there’s something I cannot deny. Before I was detained, I gave John the information he needed to continue our activities.
So I share his responsibility. I helped create the child’s battered body. As did John, with his suitcase stuffed with TNT and petrol, which burst and burnt—and harmed most dreadfully.
I stare at the mirror and try to find words to conjure up the reality of her life. I cannot picture it, but equally I cannot escape it. The pain of her existence, the strength of her survival. Should I try to contact her, to begin to attempt to formulate an apology?
But I shudder at the thought of facing her. I cannot imagine trying to explain the inexplicable circumstances that created the link between us. My non-involvement with the bomb, yet my closeness to it.
Sometimes the meetings we seek to avoid come seeking us.
A few years after returning to South Africa from post-prison exile, I receive an email from a cousin in Harare. She says there is something she needs to tell me. It happened a while ago, but she wants me to know about it.
She’d gone down to Jo’burg on a shopping spree. She’d been invited to meet a friend for dinner at a
Her friend says another woman will be joining them. She’s from the UK and her face is badly disfigured from some accident, so please don’t stare.
My cousin sits next to the woman, and doesn’t stare. But, later, it is the woman herself who refers to her “film-star looks”, and starts to tell her story.
Glynnis—it is Glynnis—asks my cousin if she’s heard about the Johannesburg bomb. The one on the station that killed an old lady and injured her granddaughter. Well, she is the granddaughter.
My cousin goes cold. But she feels she must come clean. She can’t hide who she is, or her relationship to me. She mentions my name and waits for Glynnis’s fury.
My cousin writes that Glynnis wanted to send me a message. And this is it. Glynnis wanted my cousin to tell me that she has one certainty in her life. It is the certainty that all her friends—and she has many—like her for who she is, and not for how she looks. It is a certainty, said Glynnis, that is not given to everybody.
I stare at my cousin’s words in the email on the computer screen. And I read them and I read them and I read them. The screen has become the perspex window of the visiting room in prison. I can’t hear any meaning. The words exist in a different world.
I cannot reach them.
Hugh Lewin and Ronnie Kasrils will be on “Memory Is the Weapon”, chaired by Nic Dawes. (Session 8, Main Theatre, Sunday September 4, 9.30 to 11am)