My first election

I envy other people their first-election stories. Many people have thrilling tales of ’94, when they were IEC volunteers and made last-minute deliveries of ballot papers to keep some far-flung voting station open, or who single-handedly resuscitated a little old lady who had collapsed in the queue and was refusing to go to the hospital because she wanted to exercise her precious democratic right, or who stood in the sun for half a day even though they’d lost both legs that morning to gangrene or a hippo. I know one guy who was crossing the Atlantic single-handedly on a yacht, and was delayed off Gough Island or somewhere by weather or pirates or sea-monsters and fought a lonely, sleepless battle against the skies and the seas to make it to Cape Town just in time to cast his vote for freedom and the future.

These are great stories and I have nothing to match them. I was just a middle-class white boy in a middle-class white suburb, and of course I appreciated the significance of the moment but I also had other things on my mind.

My voting day started when my friend Alan knocked on my door while I was pulling the cushions off my sofa, and asked if I wanted to go vote with him. This was a big moment for me, because until that moment I wasn’t absolutely sure that my friend Alan was indeed my friend. He had been the head boy at my high school two years ahead of me and I had idolized him from afar. He was tall and handsome and impossibly smart and implausibly cultured and untameably funny, the first head boy (and probably the last) that Glenwood High ever appointed who didn’t play a sport. He shone in the mass of Durban schoolboys like a Grecian statue, and he remains the wittiest person I’ve ever known.

I spent the second half of my high-school career trying to emulate and imitate him, and while I wasn’t yet making a living with language in 1994, he was a big part of who I was and how I hoped to save myself. Of course, he knew none of this. A few years after school, living in a different city, it was the sheerest coincidence when I stepped into the elevator of my apartment block on the day I moved in and discovered him there. He lived up on the fifth floor – appropriately I was two below – and I began assiduously and breathlessly courting him as a friend. I played it cool, as cool as I could, and I certainly never told him how important he was to me as an escape route, a model for being, a principle of possibility.

Of course I wanted to go vote with him, but the reason I was pulling the cushions off my sofa was I’d just discovered that I’d lost my ID book, and I was searching high and low but realizing that I had absolutely no source of identification. I didn’t tell him that. We walked down together to the high school where voting was happening. It was a bright crisp lovely day, in my memory. I wish I could remember what we talked about, but we talked a lot and we laughed and we were there together on this day that neither of us would ever forget in all the years to come, as long as we lived and the Republic yet stood, and it felt like the proper beginning of friendship.

The queue was very long. It snaked and coiled around the sport field of the high school. We stood in the queue for two or three hours, although I wish it had been seven or eight. I noticed, up ahead in the line, someone I recognized from campus. She was a year younger than me and we’d never properly spoken but I was deeply infatuated. She worked part-time at a picture framer, and I would lurk past in the afternoons when she was working, and hunt around in junk stores for old movie posters that I could take to be framed. Ah, she was lovely. There was a joyful twinkle in her eyes that said, “With me, your life will be full and adventurous and overflowing each day with laughter and delight.”

Each time the queue looped and snaked, the coils would double back on themselves and we would pass each other going in opposite directions. The first time we passed I nodded and smiled. The second time we passed, I said something excruciating like, “We really must stop meeting like this”. I think I may even have thrown in a sophisticated chuckle, to show it was a witticism. As we shuffled away from each other again, I died inside at the lameness of it, and because Alan had heard it. This was far below his standard of wit.

“What are you going to say next time we pass her?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I muttered miserably.

Alan took matters in hand. The next few times we looped past, he and I were in the middle of some new and fascinating conversation on which she was able to eavesdrop. Once we were a pair of, I suppose, hitmen debating where to hide a body. Once we were a pair of lovers quarreling about whether to summer in Capri again or take a chance with Nice. Once, I seem to recall, he was accusing me of being Lord Lucan. First she smiled, then giggled, then the fifth or sixth time she said, “Can I come queue with you guys rather?”

It was a beautiful day, all of us there, my hero and new friend on one side, my potential soul-mate on the other, all of us talking and laughing and inching our way toward the future. When we arrived at the voting tent and they asked for my ID book, I said, “Oh, wait, isn’t the queue for the Bryan Adams concert?” and that raised a laugh. Everything was as perfect as it could be. It was twenty-five years ago and the world was dawning and full with possibility, and as long as the democracy held, we would all be happy forever.

I looked her up this morning – she lives in New Zealand now, and has four children. Some years ago Alan jumped off the roof of a 22-floor building. But the democracy held.

The Times – 9 May 2019