Shine: Apprenticeship IV, Cape Town 1971

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George was our polisher. He was one of those ‘coloureds’ with pale skin, brownish hair and green eyes, and was predictably called Whitey. (Apartheid was very strange.) He wore a blue cotton overcoat like a lab coat. His hands were never entirely free of the reddish traces of rouge. The nails of his thumbs and index fingers were highly polished, and gleamed, but were rimed underneath. If you encounter someone with hands like that, you don’t have to be Sherlock to work out that they are a polisher.

George was an in-your-face sort of man, full of boasts of sexual exploits or excesses of substance consumption, and although I got on with him, his world was very far from mine, and I found it hard going. He liked the joke that was also a put-down, the subversive one-liner. He was the living embodiment of the subaltern getting his own back in various little ways, a tradition with its roots in slavery.

Like all workers he was always short of money, and when times became especially pressing he would nick a piece of silver from the scrap box, which no-one bothered to weigh or check, make up a wedding band, stamp it ‘18ct’ and plate it with gold. Then he’d pop down to the pawn shop with it.

One summer weekend towards the end of my time with Huppertz, George went to Macassar Beach, a wind-swept stretch of coast on False Bay with dangerous rip-tides which was reserved for “non-whites”, where he and friends spent the day drinking before setting out in a boat. The boat capsized. Like most working-class people then, he couldn’t swim, and was drowned. Many years later, browsing in a junk shop, I came across a golden ring that was stamped 18ct about six times. Some of the plating had worn off and the silver was showing through. I felt sure that it was one of his.

Apprenticeship Part V

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