When I was 19, I went on a date with a guy who got quite drunk and told me his father was a murderer. I can’t say it was the most effective pick up line but it beat, “get out of my dreams and into my car” for instance, which was probably what a girl got in 1988.
And, here’s the thing, I can’t say if he’d rehearsed his story, or if he was a great raconteur but he told a damn good tale, it had innuendo and nuance, sex, money and alcohol. It was set in a glamorous post war Johannesburg I didn’t know, a tale of privileged ‘boys’ from wealthy homes who’d taken a ‘pretty girl’ on an ill fated date. Everyone got drunk and messed around. It all ended up in tears, with a body abandoned in a field. But despite the investigations, arrests, court and newspaper onslaught, these boys were never going down because, he explained, they’d made an agreement not to tell on one another, to go to the grave with the secret of ‘who had actually done her in, the young Bubbles Schroeder.’
I remember thinking, he’s making it up, it wasn’t his father, and this is a film I’ve seen, a magazine article I’ve read. And the story has always held that for me; a sense of familiarity, a sense of a theme revisited and revisiting. Because we do this in society, we allow men to rape and murder young girls and get away with it. I have a theory that if a man is rich and good looking he can kill a woman; he can get away with it. We just keep seeing it all over the world. There are occasions, someone powerful like Dominic Dunne will come along and build the public into a frenzy of outrage then a person will be put away, and sometimes decades after the crime took place.
There they were in my mind, these 3 good-looking boys who’d murdered a pretty little thing and gotten away with it. The abandoned body, the house, the pretty girl in a pretty torn dress, it was all so alluring and yet, a part of me, sitting in that Thai Restaurant trying to be sophisticated and worldly, a part of me trying to be sexy but not sexual must have looked back on past dates and looked forward into future ones – it can take a lot of dating for a girl to hitch a good husband… that nervous part of me must have thought, it could be me, why not? These are the boys I date; this is the pool of eligible bachelors.
But that one, that night, he was a ‘nice Jewish boy’ certainly deserved better then I. He took me home like a gentleman but in spite of the story I didn’t give him much of a chance beyond that evening. Maybe he wasn’t dangerous enough, besides, I was 19 and on the ‘dating circuit.’
The next day I told my parents the story of stories, but you know what? They knew it, they knew way more about Bubbles then I did, and over the years I would discover that a lot of people knew about Bubbles. She was a Joburg legend. There was a part of me that felt indignant. The indignance of youth. Or possibly it was fear.
And then of course I forgot, altogether forgot.
My writing teacher Anne talks about our ‘ancestors,’ the ghosts of our writing who will themselves onto the page. Not necessarily the people you want to write about but the people who insist on being written.
In 2009 having completed a memoir my brain was idling merrily when the oddest thing happened, Bubbles came knock, knock, knocking from Heavens door. Tap, tap, tapping her way onto the page. And really, it felt like she started to write herself. Every morning, I’d wake up, sit down at the desk next to my bed and write, most days I didn’t bother to get out of my pajamas just sort of rolled over and wrote. I built a shrine to her, framed one of the few photographs ever taken during her brief life, hung a strand of pearls and stood a bottle of the Chanel no5 I imagined she’d so desperately desired. I trawled Long Street and found objects from the period. Bubbles didn’t haunt me from the dead she came alive on the page.
I felt like a method actor getting into a role; my style of writing changed, my vocabulary changed, everything went backwards in time, down the rabbit hole.
And people tumbled into my life with stories, about Joburg, about Bubbles, about illicit sex in the 1940’s. I felt like a traveller. Never a creator, certainly never anything as grand as an artist. I spoke and received letters from Muizenburg, London and America, Vereeniging and Lichtenburg and the funny thing; nobody said to me; ‘those boys were innocent”. One person did, in December 2011, he said, “I don’t believe X did it.”
I spoke to a person who said, “She went to a house with 3 boys, what did she expect?” “Surely not to die?” I gasped. “It was 1949” he said, “A girl didn’t go to a house with 3 boys!”
My favorite line was a friend who told me her grandmother used to say, “Don’t go out dressed like that, you’ll end up like Bubbles Schroder.”
Then towards the end, quite suddenly I felt like a writer, because I hit a writer’s block. A terror kicked in and I thought, ‘who am I to indict these people? Who am I to point a finger? Maybe I should be writing another book, in fact; maybe I shouldn’t be writing at all, what was wrong with color coordinating my underwear? Maybe it was all a mistake, the whole book and in fact my entire life.
I stopped writing and began obsessively pouring over my research, pages and pages of research. Court transcripts, photographs. A journalist whose notes had actually been written on a script pad belonging to the father of one of the accused boys. It was clear people had been paid off. “What would we do if it was us? If it was our sons.” My husband asked one evening. God forbid it should ever happen to us, but what would we do? They were young, their whole lives ahead of them, their parents had come off the boat penniless just one generation previously. And this girl, this bit of fluff looking for money had come and got them into a tangle. She knew what she was doing, the risks she was taking. One night and their lives were ruined, it wouldn’t have been fair, so they made a mistake, a big mistake, but they were good boys. And so I imagined it going. Parents protecting their children.
I couldn’t bring myself to kill her again, it was too violent, she’d gotten under my skin and I loved her. I needed someone to tell me how to kill her, my mother, husband, writing teacher; one of them owed me an easy way out. And they all ‘stepped away from the vehicle.’ What if I left her on the side of the road let the readers make up their own bloody end. And then it occurred to me, she should tell me, so I got an appointment with a psychic.
The appointment was for a Monday morning. Tallulah, my daughter meanwhile discovered Cindy Lauper and on the Sunday evening before I went to see the psychic I found the old ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ video on YouTube and our family danced around my bedroom singing the song and watching the video which has dated somewhat. It was a fun evening.
I’d never been to a psychic, but the next day, which happened to be a cold day in Cape Town; I drove, away from sunny Sea Point to the other side of the mountain, the ‘dark’ side. Where I found myself, in a little house, listening to a woman who really felt like she was ‘channeling’ Bubbles and in a soft voice said, “I was born at a time when no one heard me and sometimes it’s better not to be heard but you’ve given me a voice”. She told me, through tears, that this book wouldn’t be for her, her life was over. But rather it would be for other girls; young girls who still found themselves on dangerous dates and felt guilty went things went wrong, felt ashamed to speak out about what went wrong on ‘bad dates’. She said things that made me quite sure I was talking to the ghost of the character I was writing and gave me the proverbial cold shivers. There was a moment when I felt proud of what I was doing, for a short while I didn’t feel like the fraud we all secretly feel like.
And I was deeply moved, I cried and she cried, which now sounds silly. “It’s the last scene,” I explained, “Please, I’ve come for answers, I don’t want to do anyone an injustice.” “You know in your heart,” she insisted. “But I don’t”
I knew the time I’d paid for was ending, I knew the psychic would be growing weary but I wouldn’t leave, I’m not that person you see. I’m a lazy sort of person, or a person who wants answers and endings. She’d made me feel better, she even went on to make me feel clearer and calmer about karma and the after life, but in the material world where I was sitting at that moment, crying, in front of an old gas heater and a sleeping Labrador she hadn’t given me a way out and I wouldn’t leave.
After a long silence when I stubbornly refused to move she looked up and quite suddenly, as if she’d known me all my life and had a deep insight into my personality said, “Now go home, and finish the book.” She smiled, “Have fun.” Then, after a pause she looked me, straight in the eye, laughed and said, “Because remember; Girl’s Just Wanna Have Fun!”
And then I knew, the session was over.
Stunned, I got into the car, phoned my husband and repeated the story, “Finish that fucking book”; he hollered, “she’s watching us all the time.”
After Bubbles we renovated and I moved my desk into a little study in the garden. Now I sleep in my bedroom and write in the study.
There was a period where the book was between publishers and I wondered if it would see bookshelves. During that time we were at a dinner party and I told the story. Errol Arendz the dress designer said, “Oh don’t you worry honey, it’ll get published, because if it doesn’t you’ll never rest and neither will she.”