Background to her memoir – She’s from a lower socio-economic family, left school at sixteen, works as clerk in a factory. He’s from an affluent background, private school education, university degree, member of exclusive social clubs, home in the leafy suburbs.
In her first memoir, Jennifer B Graham takes an emotional journey back to her childhood in a hostile land that legally classified her as a “Coloured”.
What’s the likelihood of their having a relationship: Intimacy? – Probably not. Physical? – For sure. But would it last? Not a chance. In fact, they’re courting danger. You see, she’s brown and he’s white. Big problem. This is South Africa 1974, the height of apartheid.
Lorna Dueck for Context – interviews Jennifer B Graham on her memoir
The main road flanked by small businesses and industry teemed with dark-skinned people getting ready for their weekend activities. Convenience stores displayed attractive arrangements of tropical fruit and produce on the sidewalk. A barefooted paper boy waved copies of The Argus artfully dodging between densely moving traffic chanting, “Argie…Argie.” This was the brown people’s area, designated for them by the apartheid government.
Even though Voortrekker Road was bustling, Michael and I were still conspicuous in his old Chrysler Valiant on our clandestine date. I noticed he kept switching his eyes from the road ahead to the rear-view mirror.
“I think someone’s tailing us,” he said calmly. He was not given to panic.
I instinctively looked back and there he was, the hard-faced Gestapo-like policeman in his dark glasses and black leather jacket. We crawled along in the heavy traffic till I saw our chance to shake off our pursuer.
“Quick, turn down here to the right,” I directed, pointing my finger, being more familiar with the area than Michael. My voice was steady but my heart was beating wildly. He sped up and with tires screeching swung the car abruptly. Our stalker followed suit. Michael steered the car down a side road to the right, then left. The “Gestapo” man was still there, a few cars behind us. As we approached the railway crossing, the signal began to flash red and the booms to descend.
“Keep going! You can make it!” It was all I could do from keeping my heart jumping right out of my mouth, but externally I still remained calm. That’s the way I’ve always dealt with crises and when over, I’d fall apart. Michael’s next manoeuvre was worthy of the best Hollywood movie stuntman as we flew across the tracks. I turned around to see the barriers down and our pursuer blocked.
“Whew,” Michael blew out the air from his cheeks. That was his way – very low key.
We made our way along the back roads to our favourite secluded beach spot. The sun was just dipping below the horizon as we pulled into the deserted beachfront parking area. Table Mountain silhouetted in the distance struck its classic postcard pose across the shimmering Atlantic. But we were too shaken to appreciate the breath-taking vista before us. We sat in silence. We both knew that we were playing with fire. He was my first true love, but I knew that our “love affair” was doomed right from the beginning. I had wanted to call it off some months back, but when he begged me not to, I knew his feelings for me were genuine.
Several weeks later, we were parked again. This time under the dank, concrete underbelly of the spaghetti junction overpass. I had resigned myself to our relationship going nowhere. I saw no way out for our predicament. It was no use prolonging the inevitable.
“We can’t go on this way,” I said softly, my seemingly calm disposition belying the weight of anxiety pressing down on my chest. Michael had always treated me with utmost respect and dignity and I would handle the situation as such. After all, Mama had always taught me to conduct myself with poise, “like a lady.”
“What do you mean?” he replied, gazing sideways at me from behind the steering wheel.
Concern was written all over his gentle round face just like the last time I had wanted to end our relationship.
“We have to face the inevitable, Michael. Things are just getting too dangerous. That man who followed us – I’m frightened. They’re closing in on us. I can’t go on like this. Let’s face the facts, we have no future together.”
It seemed like an eternity before he spoke.
“You’re right, my darling. I know the strain you’ve been under and you’re right, we can’t continue this way. I’ve given the matter a lot of thought, and this is what I propose. I know I’ve procrastinated on a decision about our future which was remiss of me.” Michael took a deep breath. “Jennifer,” he began, sounding exceedingly serious. He rarely called me Jennifer, always, Jen.
“I love you and want to spend the rest my life with you. Would you come away with me to England, where we can give ourselves a chance – in freedom? I know this is asking an enormous sacrifice of you, sweetheart, to give up your country, loved ones and friends.”
I couldn’t believe what he had just said, and not being one to think on my feet too swiftly, I didn’t know what to reply. I was dumbstruck but my expression remained deadpan. What I really wanted to proclaim to the whole world was, “Going to England? Yes! Oh yes.” What I really wanted to do was to throw my arms around his neck and smother him with kisses.
But even in my euphoric state, I was conscious that embracing him in broad daylight was far too risky.
“I love you too, and I too want to be with you for the rest of my life,” I said shyly.
“I can’t promise you a bed of roses, my darling. You don’t have to give a reply right away, but would you give what I’m putting forth some thought?”
Under normal circumstances anywhere else in the world, two people in love would pick out the best romantic settings Cape Town’s stunning scenery could afford. The man would go on bended knee, produce an engagement ring and the air would be filled with jubilation. But these weren’t normal circumstances. In the eyes of the law, this was unequivocally an immoral proposal.
About the author – Jennifer B Graham is a self-proclaimed global nomad who began life in South Africa, left when she was nineteen and since then hasn’t looked back. Over a forty year span she’s also lived in England, Canada, USA and New Zealand.
After earning her degree in communication/print journalism from the University of Mobile, Alabama, USA in 2001, she wrote freelance feature articles on topics such as food, health, travel and profiles for miscellaneous publications that include Destinations, Connections, The Press, The Citizen, The Fairhope Courier as well as Triond.com. An Immoral Proposal is her first book.
Jennifer is a member of the Writers’ Community of Durham Region, Oshawa, Canada. She lives with her husband near Toronto. Her five grandchildren, split between Delaware and Saskatchewan, keep her wandering.