Visiting the Mother City

“Granny’s been taken into ICU in Sandton Clinic. I don’t think she’s going to make it, so I’m flying up.” The man on the phone is surprisingly calm about this. He’s older, in his mid sixties perhaps, corporate. He exudes that kind of pleasant, rather placid air of entitlement that the well-heeled possess. I’m surprised he’s sitting in Economy class, at the back of the plane, with me.

It is a Sunday afternoon. Soon, this British Airways 737-400 will take off and fly me back from Cape Town to Johannesburg, where I will return to a more familiar version of myself. Because, of course, I am a Joburger, born and bred. This means I am driven, obsessed with work, in a constant state of delirious anxiety and defined, despite my best intentions, by what I do and do not own.

But every now and then, I have to leave this city to rediscover myself.

This weekend, I travelled to Cape Town. There, I learned these things:

That I can stop thinking about work, if I try.

That I don’t have to be surgically attached to my laptop. (For one thing, travelling without a laptop makes going through security so much easier.)

That I don’t have to be Productive every single second of the day to be a worthwhile human being.

That despite my crustiness and my cynicism, I am still capable of allowing myself to be vulnerable.

That being a good person matters more than anything. “Only connect,” as EM Forster once so famously wrote, though I’ve known that for a long time; this trip simply reminded me of that, again.

But having money is nice, and if I want to make a difference to the world and the people around me, I have to acquire more of the freedom that comes with having it. (The irony.)

On the plane, I transition from the chilled Cape Town version of myself back to the Joburg me. First, I draw sketches for a painting. Then I write the outline for this post. Then I map out a strategy for a client I am seeing tomorrow afternoon. Just before we start descending to Joburg, I drift off to sleep, the engines roaring in my ears.

I wake up just in time for rubber to connect with tarmac. Seatbelts click, passengers position themselves in the queue and reach for the overhead lockers. The man next to me makes a phonecall. “Is the black Range Rover ready for me?” he asks. ”I’ll be there in six or seven minutes.” He files off the plane. I hope he makes it in time. I wonder what he will do once he gets there, if he will weep, if what he shows on the outside will hint at what lies beneath.

Sarah Britten (first published in The Red Robot Project, 27 May 2013)