Three conversations about Christmas


Igshaan was my Uber driver.

“Going to the theatre?” he said. “That’s very nice, very relaxing.”

Relaxation was uppermost in Igshaan’s mind. It has been a hard year.

“It’s been hard for everyone,” I agreed, a little untruthfully, because actually it hasn’t been a hard year for me. Other than things I worry about, which don’t yet exist and are only in my head, it has been a pretty good year for me but it always feels impolite to say so.

“I won’t complain,” said Igshaan. “I like to stay positive. Life’s a gift, and it’s ungrateful to complain about a gift just because you don’t like what’s in it.”

Igshaan is about 65 years old, and usually takes a holiday once a year, in winter. He and his family go to Caledon, where you can hike up to a cave with a lovely view over the valley, and you can bath in the hot springs.

“The water’s so hot, I can swim at three o’clock in the morning,” he said.

I told him I’d definitely avoid Caledon in case anyone tried to make me take a dip at 3am in the dead of winter.

“More room for me!” said Igshaan.

But his once-a-year holiday won’t cut it this year. Each morning when he wakes he finds himself sitting on the edge of the bed for a little longer, trying to summon the will to stand. He knows there’s something badly wrong, with him or with the world, so his wife has called a friend of a friend of a friend, and she’s borrowed a house in Hermanus for three days. He’ll take a book and switch off his phone and not think about anything. He wants to forget about 2015.

And 2016? Does he think 2016 will be better?

He drove for a bit before answering. “2016 is a gift,” he said at last.



Clyde was filling out the paperwork on my license so that he could sell me a new TV. I was telling him that this was my first ever TV license, even though I once spent seven years as a TV critic, because whenever I bought a new TV I’d use girlfriends’ licenses, but now I’d run out of girlfriends.

He didn’t care. He was frowning at my birthdate.

“How religious are you, sir, if you don’t mind that I ask?”

“Not at all,” I answered cheerfully, to both parts of his question.

“It’s just that, do you know when Christmas is?”

I sensed this was a trick question.

“It’s not 25 December,” he confided. “People think that, but that’s using the Roman calendar. Why use the Roman calendar? That’s the calendar of Caesar. You must use the Christian calendar.”

“I see,” I replied thoughtfully.

“Put it this way,” said Clyde. “If the blacks are in charge of South Africa, there won’t be any white presidents, correct? And if the whites are in charge, no black presidents, correct?”

Jingle-Bell Rock was playing over the loudspeakers.

“It’s all in the book of Luke,” he told me. “You know what the real date of Christmas is?”

I didn’t. He tapped my date of birth with his index finger and beamed at me.

“You know, Clyde,” I said, “I have always thought there were remarkable similarities between me and Jesus.”

“Oh, I wasn’t …”

“Merry Christmas, Clyde.”

“Not until April, sir,” he said.



Lulu was working a till in a department store downtown. I asked her why her shirt was white, when all the other cashiers have pink shirts, the store’s colours. It’s because she’s new, she said. You only go pink after your probation period.

“Must be tough,” I said, “starting out in the middle of the Christmas rush.”

She opened her eyes wide. “And the people!” she said. “So rude!”

“People are impatient at this time of year,” I nodded sagely, as though I often deal with the public over Christmas.

“They’re trying to get you to go fast so they can give you fake money,” she said.

In the three days she’d been working, she’d received three different payments in counterfeit currency. Apparently purveyors of funny money scan the cashiers, identify the newbie by her white shirt, then join the queue, often with accomplices in front and behind to make a ruckus about how slow the line is moving.

“They make you rush so you don’t look at the money properly,” said Lulu. “They don’t care if you get into trouble.”

She’s supposed to swipe big notes under a scanner, but sometimes she forgets.

I told her I was sorry, and she shot me a wide smile. She’s very happy to have the job. Every day she gets better at it.

“Next time you see me,” she said, “I’ll have a pink shirt.”

Times, 9 December 2015