It is 1984. Mary Holland and I meet at school. She had just moved from England to South Africa. That year I was sent to boarding school. I lived, with my parents, on Mahé Island in the Indian Ocean archipelago of Seychelles. In 1977 there had been a coup d’état, and all children with Island blood were to join the Young Pioneers. My mum wasn’t having that so I was sent away. Mary and I were put together for computers. I was useless at computers, Mary got us through. I was homesick. All the time. Sometimes I would spend the weekend at Mary’s house. She would insist that we dress up and perform little plays for her parents, musical sketches and things like that. Her dad Roger reminded me of Henry VIII, he had red hair and a red beard and he was large. Or at least that is how I remember him. One Monday morning, after one of these weekends, I said goodbye to Roger while he ate his bacon and eggs: ‘Come again soon Yvette’ he said. Soon after that he died. Mary moved to another school.
I have a photograph of Mary taken in London about five years ago. She was teaching in Dubai. I had moved to London. In the photograph, a snapshot taken on a mobile phone, she’s looking through her camera aiming for a shot. I can’t remember who or what it was she was looking at. Perhaps it was at me. I do remember how I felt that day, cross with Mary. There she is all wrapped up and focused on what I cannot see. If I look closely I can see that something is making her smile. Behind her people are doing their thing, some are blurry, others are caught with their eyes closed. It was cold that day. I wanted to talk. Mary wanted to do other stuff. This photograph of Mary is my Roland Barthes moment. In his book Roland Barthes, Barthes begins with a selection of photographs: ‘So it is not a nostalgia for happy times which rivet me to these photographs but something more complicated’. That sums up how I feel when I look at this photograph of Mary. When Mary came to visit me in London we had a fight, a massive, loud, rip-roaring fight. We never spoke again.
Back in the ‘80s Mary came with me to Seychelles, it was school holidays. We would listen to Fleetwood Mac and suntan but we would also have these fights. These were not fights where you scream and shout and swear. Not like the later one. These were more like fights that fill a room without anything being said. The kind of fight that presses in over time. One day a heavy monsoon rain dragged itself across the mountain where we lived in a house with a roof that leaked. Mary wanted to go for a walk. And so she did. She disappeared for a day while the rain poured and dripped down the mountain. I stayed home and read Madame Bovary.
Mary died a week ago in Cape Town. The phone call, late at night, told me the news I already knew and I travelled back to the island with Mary. We lay on the beach in the sun, with the smell of suntan lotion, and Fleetwood Mac in the background. I remembered us eating the grilled fish and the basmati rice my father used to cook for us on Sundays. I can still smell the chopped garlic and the thyme. Mary and I loved to eat, and drink.
Mary was an artist, a painter, and I was one of her subjects, she liked to paint portraits of her friends. All these portraits, that somehow, captured each of our characters and quirks, were also about Mary. As I look at them plastered all over Facebook in the aftermath of her death, I see her or rather fragments of her. In the 1990s in Johannesburg we would drink vodka and tonic and she would dress me up as Ophelia with cosmos flowers in my hair. She would bark orders at me about this pose and that. One day she filled a bathtub with water and made me lie in it, with a cocktail dress on, while she took photographs for Ophelia. I was happy to do it as long as she cooked me dinner afterwards which she always did. My father died a few years after Roger. The day I heard he was dying I went to look for Mary. I found her in her studio at the art school painting. When she heard my news she cried. We went and sat outside by the side of a road. We just sat.
Barthes, Roland [transl.Howard, Richard], Roland Barthes, United Kingdom: Papermac, 1995.
Yvette Greslé is a London-based writer, and art historian. She is a contributor to ‘this is tomorrow’; Apollo Magazine; Photomonitor; Art South Africa; Africanah and the blog of the International New Media Gallery (inmg).