245 mc mandarinThe audience that filled the large school-hall clapped and cheered me as I took my bow on the stage. I was the cruel mandarin in a school pantomime loosely based on the Willow-Pattern story. It could be tedious to recount a school concert were it not for the light it sheds on Lesley’s creativity, and the way that she used it to create a niche for herself in that hostile and narrow-minded town. 

The stage was decorated as a vast Willow-Pattern plate, with various parts of the plate’s design constructed in three dimensions. In the photograph, the sloping form which can be seen protruding past my fake belly is the railing of the Willow-Pattern bridge, and it was on this bridge that Heidi Salisbury, a boy whose name I have forgotten, and I stood frozen as the curtain rose, resembling in our stillness the fleeing and chasing figures who can be seen on any such dinner-plate.

The occasion was a school concert to celebrate the recent opening of the new modern primary-school buildings, a few blocks from the old school and over the road from the Rob Ferreira Hoër Skool. I was eleven. The concert was to be a collection of national dances, with the children dressed in various national costumes, singing and dancing in groups by class.

245 willow detail

Parents were invited to help, and it was Lesley who took charge. She rewrote the script, framing it within the Willow-Pattern narrative. She designed the sets, modeled them, supervised their construction and painted them. She redesigned the costumes, made the costumes for the leads (Heidi Salisbury and me), took charge of make-up, and so on. What she couldn’t change was the forgettable music (I have forgotten it all) and the national dances. The bored and melancholy mandarin, in Lesley’s re-telling, commands entertainments from all around the world, which turns out to be mostly Europe. There were French, Dutch, and Swiss dances, and perhaps there were Red Indians.

But I was the star of the show. I was the continuity man: I kept the show together, was on stage all the time, and had to learn what seemed like hundreds and hundreds of lines. I loved it.

How did it come about that the teachers and parents at White River Primary School entrusted the show to a woman who was an outsider in almost every way, and her outsider son? I do not know, nor do I care to speculate, but this rather obvious thought surfaces: there wasn’t anyone else in the White River Primary School community who could do it better than or even as well as Lesley, and they indulged me because of her.

247 mandarin sleeveI still have the mandarin’s costume hanging in my wardrobe, and it is still stained with the ochre-coloured makeup that was used to make me look ‘Chinese’. I also have Heidi Salisbury’s costume, although I can’t say why. The embroidery on the costumes is hand-painted rather than stitched on. The colour of the paints, cobalt-blue and white, fills me with a combination of scents: the new school buildings, the smell of the paints, and of grease-paint. My mother’s perfume as she leans close to touch up the make-up on my cheek.


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