There was this beautiful guy I was at school with. He was deputy head-boy in the year above me, and while he was small: both short and slim, he had this real bone-deep confidence and a genuine, Hollywood smile. He had a strong sense of morality as well, and his leadership was unwaveringly good and admirable. He could command the attention of the school: no mean feat, considering it was 1200-strong.
He also had a beautiful voice. I first met him in a stage production of Grease. He sang the “Beauty-school drop-out” song with his smooth-as-golden-molasses voice, and became a member of the KwaZulu-Natal Youth Choir with me and a few friends of mine. I remember having intense conversations with him on those long journeys to Durban and back, and there is a photograph of him between another of my friends and I. He is smiling and looking perfectly put together, and we are dressed with all the taste and class (or should I say, lack thereof) that I can only laugh at in retrospect.
When he left school, he was lucky enough to get a scholarship – to become a teacher – from a prestigious private school. I remember hearing he was struggling, but I was always knew he would find his way.
Then I left for university, for Rhodes, and in the hodgepodge way that was common to us adopters of Facebook who only adopted it once we left school, we slowly gathered those strands of the web of our pasts about us, and marvelled at those who had three children before we had finished our degrees, or at those who went on to garner fortune and even fame in the world beyond.
Benjamin Mavimbela saw nor experienced either. He died before he was 30 and I could never find out why.
He died when he was a little younger than I am now, and I mourned in an alternately frozen and molten way after I heard. He had escaped my web of connections, and I suddenly wondered why I had never sought him after school. I wondered what could have happened in the years between school and that lonely moment that prompted his death. I couldn’t help but feel his vitality and surety had been crushed by something, or an assortment of somethings, that he no longer felt he could bear. Even as I write this, there is a dull ache that is metallic in quality, like emotional shrapnel, still lodged in a limb.
In Lars Von Trier’s film, Melancholia, the planet (called Melancholia) advances inexorably towards the Earth, and the people there can do nothing but watch it advance until it crushes everything in its path.
I thought of him, and of Melancholia, when Castro Ntsebeza died this week. Castro was also a teacher, one who struggled with his work, and who tried to be good. I only met him twice, but on the last occasion, we sat in Carla’s bright and beautiful garden and shared my char-grilled artichokes and talked about Veganism and trying to make that decision and stick to it: that decision that you make when the horror of the violence and cruelty and environmental devastation feels like it is poisoning your very soul.
I wish, in retrospect, I could have been kinder. That we could have shared Vegan recipes, and jokes and hopefulness about the future, and kept in touch.
I do not think it would have helped in that most vital of ways. Erik taught me that sometimes kindness and friendship and love cannot stop that planet from annihilating that Earth.
But knowing that cannot ease that grief that presses on your chest and makes you wish things could have been different.
I wish things could have been different.