My father thought a lot about courage. He read books about war and about the 19th century explorers who tried to find the source of the Nile and about Scott and Shackleton and their expeditions to reach the South Pole, and he wondered how he would have managed. He used to repeat what Hemingway said: “Courage is grace under pressure”. He always said it a little wistfully, because he’d never had the chance to prove himself.
When we entered the Second World War my dad was too young but he ran away from home and caught a train from Pretoria to Durban and joined up anyway. He was with his regiment three days before his mother tracked him down and he was called out by his sergeant and sent home.
When he was finally old enough his eyesight was bad so he spent the last years welding warships in the Durban dry docks. His no-good older brother Jerry spent all his time trying to avoid the army, but although he knew that war is no good thing, my dad always regretted he never had the chance to prove to himself that he had grace when the moment came. For him, the moment never came.
A few years ago something happened and my first thought was to tell my dad. I went to a game at Loftus between the Springboks and Australia, and as I was driving back down the M1 afterwards with my friend Rob, a BMW came up so fast behind me and flashed his lights impatiently. Maybe because the Boks had won, or maybe just because I was young and stupid, I kept my speed and refused to move over. The guy turned his lights on bright so that I had to lift my hand to block the reflection in the rear-view mirror. A sensible man of another nationality might have pulled over and let the lunatic go by, but I choose the traditional South African response: I feathered my brakes just enough so the brake-lights came on, not enough to significantly slow down.
Behind me the lights swerved and wove across the lanes as the dude in the BMW jammed his brakes, and Rob and I carried on talking about the game. Then the car pulled up beside us on the left in the middle lane, and Rob turned to look at him then the next thing I knew he was on the floor, curled up in the footwell. His face looked up at me like a scared pale moon.
I didn’t know what was happening until I looked at the car, and I saw the driver’s face was twisted with fury and I couldn’t hear what he was yelling, but I could see that he had a gun in his right hand and it was pointed at us. Rob ducking down gave him a clear line of fire at me.
And this was the part I wanted to tell my dad about. I might have jammed on the brake or tried to speed up but instead I felt perfectly calm. I looked at the nutjob with the gun and the road-rage, then I calmly turned back to look straight ahead. I ignored him and carried on driving, and at last he accelerated away.
“You can get up now,” I said to Rob. “He’s gone.”
I wanted to tell my dad, because I thought I’d been tested by a moment of pressure and I hadn’t panicked. I maintained grace. Maybe that means I have courage.
Only later did I wonder about it. A while after that there was another moment of pressure in my life. There was no immediate physical threat or danger, the only guns at my head were metaphorical, but it was a crisis in my life and my career, and I needed to keep calm and take action. I needed to do something.
Instead I just sat there as though I was driving a car down a freeway at night. I didn’t change speed or direction; I didn’t react at all. It wasn’t panic that I felt: I was quiet and blank and still. At the time I congratulated myself for keeping a cool head, but afterwards I realised it wasn’t a cool head at all. I was like the California sage hen, the only wild animal that even when backed into a corner doesn’t fight for its life. The less I did, the worse things became, and I sat there calmly and let it happen, and later I wondered if maybe that’s what happened in the car that night with the gun pointed at my head. Maybe I’m not courageous at all. Maybe my calm is just a form of freezing.
I wished my dad was around so that I could discuss with him, a man talking to a man, what courage is.
And then, not so long ago, I was talking to my mother. We don’t have a great many conversations, and not about things that matter. From time to time I’m surprised by some nugget that surfaces like a speck of gold in the shallow pan of our politeness, but this was more than a surprise. Suddenly, while talking about a medical check-up I’d just had, she casually mentioned, “You know your father had cancer once.”
I did not know that.
“Oh yes,” she said. “He was given six months to live.”
She would have gone on with eating her biscuit and sipping her tea and maybe talking about the cricket – most of our conversations are about the cricket – if I hadn’t demanded more information. What sort of information, she wondered? Well, let’s start with exactly when he was given six months to live. Was it six months before he died?
“No, no,” she said. “I was three months pregnant with you.”
There are times when talking with my mother that I start to suspect I’m in one of those candid-camera shows. She says perfectly incomprehensible things as though they’re very natural and obvious, and I have to sit there growing ever more mind-boggled and befuddled, wondering if I’ve gone insane or if Leon Schuster will suddenly jump out of a drinks cabinet made up like a black woman.
“I don’t … understand …” I managed to say at last.
She patiently explained as though to a small simple child, so slowly that I started to think that it was unreasonable for me as a full-grown man to expect that I should have heard this story before.
When she was three months pregnant with me, my dad was diagnosed with a relatively late stage of a fast-moving cancer. He was working as a sales representative for a brand of motor oil at the time. He spent most of his days schlepping his wares around Durban, and sometime he had to drive up the south coast to Margate or even further. He came home and told my mother the diagnosis, and she didn’t know exactly what to say. She says he sat there for a minute, thinking about it and drinking a brandy and ginger ale. There was nothing very unusual about that: he always drank a brandy and ginger ale after work. Sometimes more than one, but not on this occasion.
The next day he went out and borrowed a friend’s welding kit. Each day when he came home from work, instead of drinking his brandy and ginger ale he went around the neighbourhood, knocking on people’s doors, offering to do any handyman work they might need, and offering to sell them customised hand-made burglar bars. He would take their orders and stay up all night in the garage, welding and working the iron. In the morning he’d go to work again. Almost everyone on our street had burglar bars my dad made. He worked day and night, making money to leave behind so that my mother could raise me.
He didn’t tell anyone about the diagnosis except his no-good brother Jerry, and Jerry arrived one Saturday morning to take him off fishing, to drink brandy together and have a good time. My father took him aside and spoke to him in a low voice, and Jerry climbed back in his car and drove away again, and my dad went back to welding.
“And the cancer?” I asked.
“It went away,” she said. “Ten years later he died of something else entirely.”
I sat for a long time, thinking about receiving news like that when your new wife is pregnant with your first child, and what it would feel like, and how you would be tempted to go fishing, or drink brandy, or complain, or cry, or just to sit there frozen while life happened around you. If I could sit with my father now, man and man, sipping brandy and ginger ale, I would tell him he needn’t wonder what would have happened if the moment of pressure came. There’s no need to wonder if he had courage.
By Darrel Bristow-Bovey