Photo: Courtesy of Mary Holland.
"If your house caught on fire, what would you grab?"
It’s one of those silly questions you probably used to ask while plaiting your girlfriend’s hair.
And, for an indecisive person like me, it’s not an easy one to answer. Provided you even had the option (your house is on fire, after all), think for a moment about what you would choose.
It was only recently that I really had to think — in a not-so-casual, definitely not hair-plaiting kind of way — What would I take?
In the early hours one December morning, I awoke to the sound of someone rapping on my bathroom window. And, I can honestly say that waking up to that sound, especially in a crime-ridden country like South Africa, is absolutely terrifying.
Only, this wake-up call didn’t come with a group of men clad in black balaclavas — it came with the overwhelming smell of smoke.
Curled beneath my sheets, I was lifted from my sleepy haze and suddenly shot up. The wind was howling violently, and my bedroom was filled with the intoxicating smell of fire. My first thought: OH MY GOD, THE MOUNTAIN’S ON FIRE, WE’RE GOING TO DIE. (I can be dramatic at times.)
My second thought: Wake up my boyfriend.
Third thought: What will I wear?
As wildly embarrassing as it is to admit — even typing this is making me cringe a little — that thought was truthfully what went through my head.
Photo: Courtesy of Mary Holland.
Upon springing out of bed, I realized that the mountain behind (like, right behind) my apartment block really was on fire: flaming-trees-jumping-fireballs-in-the-wind on fire. And, it was terrifying. Truly and not-at-all-dramatically terrifying.
"Passports!" I yell to my boyfriend, who is now casually mincing around, still half asleep. Because — who knows? — it might not only be our building that we’re evacuating but the whole country! Slightly/very/insanely panicked, I scan the room like an angry schoolmistress to see if there was anything I couldn't leave off my list. Passports, shoes, granny’s jewelry…
And, then, in a weird turn of events, I grab my fur coat. The fur coat that I’ve worn once. To a dress-up party. Whether it’s because it belonged to some important great-aunt or the fact that it used to be a real live creature, I don’t know. I just grabbed it.
With a selection of rings, bags, and shoes and my fur coat, I flung open the door to find my landlord dashing past. I stop like a schoolboy who’s just been caught peering into the girls' changing rooms.
My landlord stares at me. Inside, I know she’s laughing. She’s laughing because there’s a fire on the mountain, and I’m dressed like Liberace.
"We’re not evacuating yet," she nonchalantly says. "The firefighters say we needn’t worry. And, besides, we can’t get out. Fire trucks are blocking the road."
I try to act casual, like wearing a fur coat in the early hours of a Thursday morning in summer is an ordinary thing. (You should see me on Tuesdays — hell, that’s when I bust out the sequins!)
But, there’s no denying it: I’m embarrassed.
And, then, a few moments later, embarrassment turns to something else. Shame, perhaps.
Because, by the time I get downstairs (sans rings, furs, and all that), past the old women wearing their hair curlers and nightgowns and past the peacock lackadaisically hanging out in the hallway, I learn the saddest news: Nelson Mandela has just died.
Suddenly — forgive me for sounding clichéd — my rings and fur and shoes and bags and jewelry just don’t seem that important anymore. How can they when South Africa’s hero and one of the world’s most revered leaders has just died?
The shame has now turned to shock. Because, despite knowing that Madiba had not been well for months, earth-shattering news like that still guts you like a knife in the stomach.
So, I watch the fireballs jump from tree to tree, and I think about Mandela, not knowing what to feel. And, then, I make a halfhearted joke to one of the neighbors about the things I grabbed and how silly it seems in light of the tragic news. She looks over to my boyfriend and asks what he took. "I grabbed my clothes for tomorrow," he casually responds, as if that’s the only logical thing to do.
And, perhaps it is, because despite the material things I love and the items to which I’ve attached such meaning, I can’t help but realize that logically, realistically, at the end of the day, that’s all I actually need: clothes for tomorrow.