Given playing conditions about as good as could be offered to any child, we were expected to get on with it and not bother the adults too much. This applied at Clifton, where the beach, the ever-changing sea, the maze of steps, paths, gardens and storm-water drains that connected our bungalow to those of the many children living there, afforded a safe, exciting and endlessly variable adventure ground. Luitingh’s Guest Farm was also a good place to play. There were two stone Anglo-Boer War laagers on the koppie above the house. On the far side of the back koppie was a shaft dug deep into the hill where an obsessed local farmer would come at night to dig for the Kruger millions. The orchards, with their piles of wooden packing-crates and dropped fruit, were ideal for orange wars, with the crates built into forts and castles. There were big leaf boats to sail down the bilharzia-infested canals, crewed by strange beetles and large black ants. The farm was inexhaustible, and we ranged over it freely, inscribing it into our inner cartography. This meant that while we occupied ourselves, the adults could get on with their lives.
Deadlines made them more distant from us children – when Lesley was working towards an exhibition, she would spend more and more time engrossed in her artistic work.
She kept a diary during exactly four months, from the 25th of April to 25th of August, 1955, three years before we left the Cape for the Transvaal. Unlike my father, Lesley was not a regular diarist, and this is the only diary she kept until she was in her sixties.
The events, feelings and impressions it recounts build up to an exhibition of her paintings at the Lidchi Gallery in Johannesburg on the 5th of August that year, and taper off with the aftermath of the show. After the 25th of August, she did not write again. I find it almost impossible to imagine that the pages in the book describe scenes from my own life, so opaque is the curtain of forgetting that our journey to Luitingh’s Guest Farm drew over that time.
This cutting, tucked into the hand-made cloth cover of the diary, shows a tense woman in her early thirties. Although she is clearly my mother, the picture stirs no reliable resonance. It is too blurry, the face too generically like her, tension making her look older than her thirty-three years.
But on the wall behind her, between her and Mr. Sylvester Stein, I can make out faintly the curves of a painting, the suggestion of a figure. Is it perhaps Prisoners Drilling or Two Drillers, both listed at the beginning of the diary in a list of titles? Other titles include Goukama Valley, Crayfish, The Measuring Tower, The Grindstone and Boy with Pigs. There are fifty-one titles listed. The distorted shadow which blurs into a painting does seem familiar, but no more than that. I do not know the whereabouts of the fifty-one paintings listed in that old diary, or even if they still exist. If I were a detective or an academic researcher, I would comb the diary for sales, and try to trace the purchasers or their descendants. I would seek Advocate I. Stoller, of 726 His Majesty’s Buildings, Eloff Street, Johannesburg, who paid fifteen ‘Mrs. Kotkin’ or ‘Sylvester’, who waited until the exhibition was closing and bought at discounted prices. It was the latter who took Pneumatic Drill for thirty guineas, reduced from forty-five. both listed at the beginning of the diary in a list of titles? Other titles include Goukama Valley, Crayfish, The Measuring Tower, The Grindstone and Boy with Pigs. There are fifty-one titles listed. The distorted shadow which blurs into a painting does seem familiar, but no more than that. I do not know the whereabouts of the fifty-one paintings listed in that old diary, or even if they still exist. If I were a detective or an academic researcher, I would comb the diary for sales, and try to trace the purchasers guineas for the only painting sold at the opening, or perhaps But the fifty-year-old trail is so cold that my chances of finding anything are close to zero.
Albie thought for a while that Jack and Lesley Cope were ‘the ideal couple, living in ideal circumstances, manifesting ideal happiness.’ If exercising one’s creativity by painting pictures and living the bohemian life are still regarded by some as a route to a kind of happiness, then the diary shows in detail how this was not so for Lesley. In the first entry, she complains of stomach pains and expresses the concern that these may indicate ‘something worse’. On the 9th of May she writes, ‘Beautiful clear day at last but I remained in bed reading War and Peace – tummy so sore.’ (Where were Raymond and I, aged three and seven?) On the 10th, she had a very inflamed eye and severe nagging indigestion. The same day she framed pictures and got her Fordson van back from the garage (looking fine.)
The next day she had burning indigestion after an opening of a photographic exhibition. On Sunday she was in a bad mood, asking ‘How can I paint with no studio – with constant advice and interruptions?’ She ends the entry by noting that ‘Jack is completely unsociable – he never talks to me much, works in his study day and night – even reads there rather than talk.’
On Wednesday the 19th, she feels ‘incredibly weary and depressed – either anaemia or worries.’ On Saturday, she writes that it is ‘quite impossible to find quiet to paint on this rainy day the house milling with kids and no private corner for me. Even Jack flung things down and shouted when I asked him what he was doing in my small selected corner. He shouted, before slamming the front door, that he was going to mend my make-up box, evidently looking for little screws. He can work all day in his closed study and has absolutely no feeling for me to find a corner to work. I am just a third-rate artist wasting my time.’ On Thursday, she ‘soundly spanked Michael for wetting. Scolded Jack for his completely negative role with regard to me – said that there was no hope of mending an already too-far-gone situation – spanked both kids for squabbling constantly – felt defeated and guilty and came to bed.’ The next day she records that she ‘must have a chill in my womb for I was awake half the night with pain – took Gelonidas and stayed in bed in the morning. Michael played so happily, my knees under the bed-clothes being a mountain, he was racing motor-bikes all over it. Finished War and Peace skipping out the long theories on war and Napoleon’s reasons for his actions etc, knowing that I have ploughed through it all before – but besides that, what a book!’
The following Monday, she sets off on a painting trip, leaving the children at home. But, before leaving she stops off at Groote Schuur Hospital for ‘the fantastic performance of X-ray. Barium meal – tipping beds in the dark – white food in the dark that goes down the wrong places. No wonder the three-year-old girl screamed so before me. Left town at eleven and slowly came here – Hawston – stopping to give odd characters a lift and eat on the way. Have suffered from the most acute headache.’ She stays until Thursday, sleeping in the van, which was ‘leaking badly and difficult to find a dry spot to sleep.’ Back home, ‘there seems to be no contact with Jack at all. He defrosted the fridge as soon as I arrived and now prefers to write in the study than talk to me. I find it also very difficult to enthuse as he isn’t interested – never asks to see my work, etc.’
That Sunday, packing for another painting trip, she writes: ‘My boys are so good about letting me go – no fuss. I wish I knew that about Jack – he hasn’t put his arm around me or touched me for a good two months – I get so bitter about it instead of playing up to him – that I doubt he’ll ever want to touch me again.’
In mid-June, there is a patch of summery weather and Lesley’s mood picks up. But on Monday the 13th she writes: ‘Raymond, Michael and I all have colds – how tired I am and full of cold.’ On Saturday, she reports ‘a lazy sunny day but I’m quite happy to rest on my bed with a hot-water bottle. I have such internal inflammation.’ That night at a smoky theatre party she ‘was in such a low depression that there was absolutely no connection between me and the people there – I sat dumbly stroking a cat – the atmosphere giving me painful conjunctivitis – Jack also preferred to ignore me totally in my plight.’ Home from her painting trip a week later, she finds that Raymond who had just turned seven, ‘has been very bad this week, stealing money and tearing his school clothes.’
At the end of June she is ‘off early to Groote Schuur to get the results of my X-rays. Met George Sacks there who hurried me through the whole process – nothing wrong with me – X-rays clear – but pain persists – amidst nervous spasms which only I can relax and get rid of.’ The next week she is back ‘to hear the results of blood test at Groote Schuur – I realise fully how out of place I was – how ill so many poverty-stricken derelict characters were – I wouldn’t sit for the doctor and hardly waited for a chat – at least I found I was 108% in blood strength – whatever that is. Never will I go there again.’
After that there are fewer references to ill health, and things seem to have gone better with Jack. Eventually she secures a booking at the Lidchi Gallery. As the exhibition nears, the symptoms return: ‘Feeling morning sick which is either pregnancy or nerves. Very down about my paintings,’ she writes on the 27th of July. The next day she ‘woke up with a bilious attack, but had to get up early to do so many things.’ The following day she writes: ‘seldom had such intense pain. Carried on painting frames but am not achieving the effect I desire. They are propped and balanced all over the house. Kept on lying down and filling myself with Gelonida.’
I look for Gelonida on the Internet. The only references I find to this pharmakon are in German, French and Cyrillic script. I find what appears to be a description of the drug on a German website, copy it and get it translated by AltaVista’s Babelfish. Short description: Application: Pain/fever. Contains: Sodium salicilate / Paracetamol / Codeine phosphate. Prescription required. Side-effects of codeine include but are not limited to: addiction, drowsiness, nausea, confusion, constipation, urinary retention, sedation, tolerance to the drug, stomach bleeding, kidney damage, liver damage, ‘itchies’, hangover, tiny pupils, blurred vision, poor night vision, impaired ability to drive, disorientation, convulsions, hallucina-tions, depression, sexual problems, agitation, tremors and seizures. I ask Gus, my pharmacist friend, about it. Here is his reply:
Gelonida was a polycomponent painkiller. Later called Veganin. Now I think off the market. It contained the ingredients listed. Considered safe at the time though the salicylates were a bit dubious – gastric bleeding or blood dysecrasias. It has now been replaced by a number of similar combinations usually cotaning Codeine + Paracetamol and sometimes Aspirin. Codeine mildly addictive and contipating.
My mother took Gelonida every day – I suspect the calming effect of the Codeine was what she liked – but developed ulcers in the stomach – she had an operation. Thereafter she just changed to Codeine/Paracetamol.
On the last weekend of July, Lesley packs her van for the trip to Johannesburg and the exhibition, but still has ‘lots of pain and backache.’ The trip seems to require her full attention for almost three days, and on the Thursday, having arrived in Johannesburg, she receives a ‘most affectionate and loyal letter from Jack – how he changes towards me – but this makes me feel good.’
As I read this, I cannot help wishing that my parents will repair the breach between them, although I know well that this can never be. My wish reminds me of watching the performance of a Shakespearian tragedy, where, although the plot is well known, I cannot help being carried along by the feelings that the actors present, wanting to yell a warning, to stop the fatal blow.
The day after the exhibition, a Saturday, she records that ‘the Star critic came – but hardly another soul – never is a Cape Town gallery so deserted! I can feel the depression set in but must keep my chin up. I have 6/6 in my purse – £200 debt and 6/6 to my name! Mustn’t let it show.’
By Wednesday, she is writing: ‘Must hide and fight down my ghastly disappointment and depression.’ On Thursday, she felt ‘punctured and dazed… decided not to go to the gallery but lazed and slept most of the day. My stomach in a nervous state.’ But sales slowly pick up, and, moving through a whirl of social engagements, she manages to make arrangements to sell many of the remaining paintings, albeit at reduced prices. ‘The end of the exhibition has decidedly cheered up,’ she writes on the 18th of August, the day before leaving Johannesburg.
She returns to Clifton after a long drive in the van with some money from the sales. ‘Paid bills today, which is a great relief to both Jack and me.’ Then, noting how ‘neglected and grubby’ the house is, she sets about spring-cleaning, washing carpets, dusting shelves and painting. In the last entry, dated Thursday 25th of August, she ‘noted how old and wrinkled I’m becoming – I ought really to take care of myself – How I’d love a long laze in the sun – just rest and peace.’