The first words of mine ever printed in a newspaper were in what was then called the Weekly Mail & Guardian. I wasn’t a writer back then, I was fresh from university and working in an office to which I had to report at 8am and from which I could not escape before 4.30pm. Everyone in the office was awful, including me. In my lunch breaks I often sat with the secretaries who were also awful but a little less awful than everyone else. One day over lunch one of the secretaries lifted her sandwich to her mouth then lowered it again and said in a low voice in Afrikaans, “This is a waste of a life.” No one replied because we were too busy silently screaming. Our bodies felt like milkbottles and our souls were bees trapped inside.
My first printed words were a long series of free messages in the classified pages by which I communicated with a woman with whom I was having an anguished love affair. I was single and very lonely in a bachelor flat in a boring part of the city and she lived with a boyfriend she still loved so we couldn’t call each other and there were no cellphones in those days, so we sent each other coded messages in the free classifieds: no more than 25 words each, once a week. I remember one exchange being lyrics from a Blondie song. At the age of 22, that is what longing looks like.
The first words with my name attached were published around the same time, in the letters page of the same paper. There was then a popular TV show called America’s Funniest Home Videos, hosted by Bob Saget. The show itself wasn’t much good – just clips of people walking into glass doors or falling into the swimming pool or being struck in the groin – but I was much taken by Bob’s voiceover narration. They were deadpan and snarky and self-loathing and dark and altogether funnier than they needed to be. They seemed to comment on themself, and on humanity, and on the futility of all mortal pursuits.
I wrote a letter to the editor, claiming to be president of the official South African chapter of the Bob Saget Fan Club, announcing applications for membership and a range of merchandise (“Honk if you love Bob” bumper-stickers; “Bob for Apples” computer software; “I sag for Saget” beltbuckles). It was the kind of joke I still like best: pointless, deadpan, self-contained, half-muttered under your breath with no real expectation that anyone else will hear or care, a message in a bottle thrown over the side of your small shipwrecked life in the unacknowledged hope that someone out there will find it and therefore find you. I think it was a first, fumbled reaching out from isolation, a half-serious yearning for company, for family, for a home. I was pleased and astonished when they printed it.
A few months later I was playing pool somewhere and a guy I half-knew from university walked past. We had never much liked each other and didn’t like each other now, but he slowed down as he passed and said, “I read your letter in the paper. Pretty funny.”
I probably mumbled something incomprehensible in reply and acted unfazed, but inside I was flustered and beaming. I’ve forgotten that guy’s name but I’ll always remember how it made me feel to realize that when you write something and send it into the world it finds its way in an uncertain fashion, by invisible circuits and currents to unlikely receptors and creates small sparks of connections, like the firing of a synapse, between your mind and another.
Some years after that letter I was found by an editor named Robert Greig who lifted me out of my life and offered me a job writing for the Sunday Independent, when that was still a newspaper. I wrote for that paper for seven years, then for ten years I wrote for no paper at all, and then five years ago Stephen Haw found me again in a different kind of life, a happy life but not yet a whole one, and asked me to write here. My happiest writing experience has been writing for you. I’ll still be writing this column in online form but I know I’ll be losing some of you and that grieves me. You have been home to me, and to you all I am very grateful.
Times, 12 December 2017