South African stories: Through the liquor glass

The Observatory Bottle Store, left, is partitioned into two classes. (David Harrison, M&G)

The Observatory Bottle Store, left, is partitioned into two classes. (David Harrison, M&G)

The building was finished in 1926 and, apart from a brief period as a café, has been a liquor store ever since.

A partition separates the place into two sections, each with its own entrance. One leads into a shop selling liquor familiar to the middle classes: bottles of wine, beer, whiskey and flavoured liqueurs, whereas the other opens into a tight space where posters on the wall advertise “Virginia: Good, Pure, Satisfying” and the high counter is topped by bars separating the patrons from the cashiers. Plastic bottles of amber-coloured liquid are on sale here for R8, jugs for R12 and the papsakke are kept under the counter.
At 9am, puffy-eyed people with missing teeth are standing in line or sitting on the floor. They wave me to the other side of the establishment. “That’s where you belong, madam.”

Outside the bottle store, Groote Schuur Hospital lurks in the shadow of Devil’s Peak. There, as we are not allowed to forget, Christian Barnard performed the world’s first successful heart transplant in the glory days of South African medicine. Joseph Ozinsky, the anaesthetist responsible for the operation, is not nearly as well known as the surgeon.

“Prof Oz”, an immensely talented and patient man, performed all Barnard’s transplant anaesthetics and ran the anaesthetic department for years before retiring to a modest suburb where he still lives.

At Mango Ginger, a tiny eatery in Trill Road, I contemplate buying a wheat-free lentil pie and goji-berry soda, while across the street, at Mimi the Delicious Food Company, an elderly man with a shock of peroxided hair sits on the pavement with his head in his hands. He lifts his face intermittently to spew expletives into the sky. It is possible that he is either on his way to, or from, Valkenberg Psychiatric Hospital, which is near the old astronomical observatory that lent its name to this suburb, within walking distance.

Viv Supermarket has opened in the corner store that was once a real-estate office. The Ethiopian man at the till, who says his name is Viv, sells chips, sweets and cool drinks, but not newspapers. In the window of Kilimanjaro Shop next door there are dream catchers, crystals and djembe drums. Inside, fragile glass pipes are for sale. At Ezithe Beni Braai Lounge African Restaurant, I study the chalked specials board and am intrigued by the egusi, okra and agbono, until a man informs me that the cook has returned to Liberia and the kitchen is no longer making food.

Later in the evening, as it has done for nearly 20 years, Café Ganesh will open its doors and begin serving crayfish samoosas, samp and beans with stew and falafel, all on mismatched crockery, while the conveyor belt will lurch into motion at 1860 House Sushi.

Observatory is home to students and young couples in starter homes who later move to leafier suburbs. Some people stay for the long haul, or return to retire in quaint Victorian houses with leaky roofs. A few will spend their last days here, sometimes on the street. As I walk back to my car, a man stumbling from the bottle store dips his head at me. “Good day, my lady,” he says.

Martinique Stilwell is a ­medical ­doctor, writer and freelance ­journalist. Her memoir, Thinking Up a Hurricane, was published by Penguin this month

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