Yesterday, I was in the high school chorus class. The teacher had me sit in the center while they sang. About 25 students around me in a circle singing Famine.
I love the chorus classroom visits because I am taken away, into memory that, like a kaleidoscope, is rearranged into new configurations.
Another year. Another school. Another continent. It is lunch hour, and under the jacaranda trees in Pretoria that line Arcadia Street, Mr. William cleans his silver blue BMW to a fine gleam. Polished shoes, knife edge crease in his pants, polishing the old BMW, playing the blues just loud enough to feel it and singing along in a voice so deep and low it feels like the song of the dry red earth itself.
“I like the blues Mr Ben,” he said whenever I passed, as though apologizing for the music outside the school gate. As though it might give the wrong impression. As though the high wall and the electric strands and the dusty street deserved something more.
I could see them in his eyes, the blues. There, on the street outside the school wall under the jacaranda trees, you couldn’t see his shack home with four kids and his wife, not with him in shoes so shined and the BMW polished just so, pants so carefully ironed every day. Mr William the driver. But in his eyes you can see the man.
“We’re all different colors, Mr William” I always said, “ But we all sing the blues.”
He was the first to sing that day. The sky such a pale and bitter blue. The ladies under their umbrellas, the men looking down, hats in their hands. The red dust rising where Jabulani was digging. Before, in the packed lecture hall, they’d been staff; cafeteria, gardeners, maintenance, cleaners, office staff, and bus drivers. They’d been one hundred Zulus, Sothos, Xhosas, and N’debele and us the three white guys all facing the little altar made up with candles and Mr. Peter’s school picture.
But now, Jabulani’s shovel carries the beat. The metal and gravel slide and the rattle of the stony earth he pitches to the side. The hard earth yielding grudgingly, reluctant to make room for the tree they will plant to remember Peter. The rasp and lift and pitch of the shovel and under it the shuffle of our feet until we are one in the rhythm and the moment. As I watch the muscles in his arms as he digs, I remember when I told him of finding Mr Peter. Feeling his arms around me and the grip of his hands on my shoulder as he cried in my arms. I held his hard hands, with the stumps from his missing thumbs. We clung to each other in the parking lot, a common point in the long and supremely separate arcs that brought us there.
William was the first one to sing, deep bass voice like a drum calling, and the ladies answered from their side of the shallow grave. The sound swelling, rising up with the dust, singing their brother home.
So much, so very much changes but the song continues, rising, notes carried over the hills and through the years, so we come across the echos unexpectedly in later years, and return. The very fabric of time and space bend to carry us back, so in the circle of singers, I taste the dust again, feel the sun on my neck, and hear William singing his brother home.