Every day entails making a number of choices, actually thousands, And the decisions we make are based on where we have been in the past and where we want to be in the future.
That’s the theory anyway. Some choices we make are after plenty of deliberation, but most are instinctive, if you can call it that.
One of the choices we’d made was to move from Cape Town to Johannesburg. Our thinking was that if we were ever going to leave South Africa it would be easier leaving Johannesburg because we did not like it much, certainly not as much as Cape Town where we had lived for six very enjoyable years.
In Johannesburg we bought a house from an old lady whose father had built it for her as a wedding present. He was a master builder and the materials he’d used were nothing but the best.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, she’d spent fifty years without doing much maintenance. She, that was, and her menagerie of cats, which meant that all the nineteen thirties carpets smelt anything but pleasant. That stench put every other prospective buyer off. We were the only people who made an offer.
Once the sale went through we immediately began renovations. The first part of this was ripping up all the carpets, to discover the most beautiful floor boards that had been hidden for decades.
I employed a builder to make some construction changes to the house. The builder’s name was Phineas. He was a tall Zulu man with a very imposing face and physique. He also drove a Volvo.
Phineas had years of experience, and one thing that weighed heavily in his favour when I was choosing a builder was that he, I assumed, would have an ability to communicate with his labourers that would be far superior to any of the other applicants.
Twelve months into the project, which included building a fifty-metre brick wall on two sides of the corner property and numerous changes inside the house, Phineas and I had struck up a strong relationship. Before I went to work he and I would discuss the plans for the day, and when I got home from work we would review his progress.
Because of the turmoils of that time in South Africa he and I had several interesting discussions about what the future held in store. He was more than candid about his views. Honesty I have found requires a level of trust, so it was apparent that we had a friendship that was somewhat out of step with the status quo in a divided apartheid ruled community.
I remember one occasion when Phineas had four of his workers set about knocking some inner walls down in order to join two smaller rooms. I walked in on them wielding sledge hammers and yelled “stop!”
It occurred to me that culturally these four men probably would never have had ownership of a house of this vintage, so their perception of care was somewhat different to mine. How could I explain to them that they needed to tread carefully with my house?
“Have you got a grandfather?” I asked, looking at each one of them in turn. This sounds like an odd question to ask a group of builder’s labourers surrounded by bricks, dust and rubble, but I had a purpose in mind. They all nodded.
“Is your grandfather very old?” was my next question. Again, they all nodded. “Ah ha” I said. “So when you speak to your grandfather do you speak quietly and gently? you don’t shout – am I right?”
They looked at each other and words passed between them. I’m not sure what they said to each other. It might have been words wondering what this stranger was getting at. But they did all nod again.
I went on to explain that this house was old, just like their grandfather, so I wanted them to treat my house like they treated their grandfather. Instead of all nods, this time I got four sets of white teeth grinning they understood. Then there was an outbreak of excited conversation between the four of them, redefining their work procedures after my metaphorical message.
I think the message got back to Phineas. At our review standing outside on the lawn, he gestured towards the house and said: “I didn’t know this was your grandfather.” It was a joke we both enjoyed.
Towards the end of the construction work I mentioned to Phineas that I and my family had decided to immigrate to Australia. Telling him this elicited one hundred questions from him about what and where and how I was leaving. But as he asked each question he nodded his head as if he knew the answer before posing the question. By now we had taken on occasions to having our evening review inside over a cup of tea where we talked about the house and many other topics.
One morning Phineas went to the trouble of asking if I would definitely be there that evening. I assured him I would.
“I have something to give you” Phineas told me.
That evening we sat inside, spoke about the last details that were needed to complete his work, and he asked if Gaynor could come into the room because he had a gift for us.
“It’s been a pleasure to work with you Gram. I wish you and your family good luck in Australia.”
“Thank you Phineas” replied Gaynor and I in unison.
Out of his leather jacket Phineas pulled a cloth pouch and handed it to me. “I want you to have these. They can help you when you get to Australia.”
He placed the pouch on a low coffee table between us.
“What’s this, my friend?” I asked.
“Look inside,” he said.
Gaynor was even more curious than I was, so she opened the pouch and emptied the contents on to the coffee table. Her eyes were immediately out on stalks, because she recognised far more quickly than I what was being given to us.
On the table were 20 or 30 slightly transparent pebbles of various shapes and sizes.
“These are diamonds!” gasped Gaynor.
I looked at Phineas and Phineas looked at Gaynor.
“Yebo!” said Phineas, acknowledging that they were indeed diamonds.
“But they’re uncut?” said Gaynor more as a question than a statement, because uncut diamonds were illegal to own in South Africa. Having grown up in Kimberley, which is the birthplace of de Beers, the biggest diamond company in the world at that time, she knew a lot more about diamonds than I did.
There was a pause in the proceedings. I know what I was doing, but not what the other two were doing. My mind was reviewing the situation – a phrase made famous by that dodgy character, Fagan.
It seemed like minutes, but probably only took seconds, for me to work out my response.
“Thank you Phineas. You’re very generous. This is so kind of you, but I can’t take them.”
Phineas looked at me in disbelief. Surely this man was not going to refuse a gift of such potential value?
But my thinking was clear and final. I didn’t need to consult Gaynor, because nothing she said would have altered my view. All that needs to be said is that the ‘klippetjies” or pebbles, were placed back in the cloth bag and handed to Phineas.
“Sorry Phineas, but it’s not worth the risk. If we get caught I’ll have a criminal record. Then no country will ever accept me again. That’s too big a risk.”
Once the tea was drunk and goodbyes were said, Gaynor and I looked at each other long and hard, but we never discussed my reasoning.
In the years that followed there were times when an extra thirty to fifty thousand dollars would have come in handy, but we never regretted refusing the offer from Phineas.
I realise also that it was more than just risk that had made up my mind. There was also a matter of personal values that stopped me. I’d been told as a child by a teacher that I’d probably end up a criminal and in jail. There was a steely resolve in me to prove to myself that the teacher had no control over my life.