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Crime Beat

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Chameleon : Installment Five

chameleon Barbara Erasmus’ new novel, Chameleon, is being serialised as a blook on Crime Beat. Catch the latest installments through the Chameleon Blook tag.

I’ve always known that people aren’t necessarily the same on the inside.

When I was little, I thought I might be a princess – underneath my outer, middle-class, suburban skin. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find my blood was blue when I fell down and skinned my knees. I dreamed that I’d been plundered from a royal crib – a malignant goblin with a long term grudge against my regal father. I adored my father. I felt certain that my royal roots must have come from his side of the family tree.

Perhaps I was over-exposed to fairy tales. I grew up listening to stories. It was an intrinsic part of going to bed, as much of a ritual as brushing my teeth. My mother would plump up my pillows and smooth the duvet around my growing limbs. She’d sit down on the chair beside my night-light and open the glossy pages, alive with mermaids and dragons and disguise. When my father did the bedtime shift, he made the stories up himself. They were my favourite stories. I was always the heroine. I could bank on a happy ending, regardless of the perils I might face along the way. I was invincible. I grew up with the certainty that I could rearrange every situation to my own advantage.

Until Eric went to jail. Solutions never seemed so accessible after that.

I was very emotional as a little girl. I wept and laughed with equal ease. It took me years to realize that there are risks attached to public tears. The returns on public laughter are far higher. It’s like a share portfolio. You have to keep the ratio between risk and return in strict proportion if you want to prosper. Everyone likes to laugh. You can be sure of applause if you’re the one who livens up the dinner party with a comic turn of phrase. Tears are a riskier proposition – though there are blue chip tears of course. They’re almost obligatory in certain situations. Weddings. Funerals. Tears won’t raise an eye-brow at either of those occasions. Movies and plays are also free of risk. There’s no personal involvement – it’s almost laudable to be moved to tears on the strength of other people’s emotions. Prize-givings are riskier. It’s kosher to cry if you win. But definitely not if you lose…

My talent for manipulation surfaced early. I don’t think I’m unique. Children seem to be born with a natural aptitude to play their parents to their own advantage. I’m sure I’m not the only one who went along with the Father Christmas myth to ensure a healthy haul on Christmas morning. From an early age, we knew who really ate the mince pies we set out underneath our empty stockings on Christmas Eve. We knew the snowy footprints on the lounge floor next morning were really made of flour. I only learned about the futures market at university but I’d already had years of practice in buying into a project in order to offset risk. I have a pre-school memory of an incident involving the tooth mouse. Perhaps it gave me my first insight into how to make a quick profit from a short sale.

I believed in the tooth mouse as assiduously as I did in Father Christmas. I’d had a loose tooth for days. I wriggled and probed it with my tongue but I couldn’t dislodge it. Eventually I took my courage in my hands and attacked it with my fingers. I held my breath and yanked. A tiny stab of pain and it came loose in my hand. A few drops of blood – they weren’t blue but my father assured me that my tooth was purest ivory. I knew I could count him to assume his tooth mouse role as soon as I fell asleep. I wondered how much he’d leave. Last time it had gone up a rand. How much did I dare to hope for this time round? I expected a good return on investments, even then.

I remember my sick sense of disappointment when I woke at dawn and pounced upon my slipper to retrieve the spoils. The tooth was still there. My ivory offering had been forgotten. I carried my disbelieving slipper through to my parents’ bedroom. Even at five years old, I think I knew that I could turn their oversight into a cash bonanza. And sure enough, my father pulled me into bed to convert my disappointment into expectation.

‘There’s been a problem with the tooth mouse,’ he began tentatively. My father was a master story teller. He had a hot-line to the world of make-believe. He always knew what was happening in fairyland. He spun a gory tale. He introduced a mugging long before it became standard fare in the South African newspapers. The tooth mouse didn’t stand a chance. He was surrounded. by a squad of hostile goblins. They beat him with their cudgels until he fell senseless to the ground, stunned and bleeding. His blood really was blue. All the good guys in my father’s stories had blue blood. His characters were often in disguise. You only knew if they were good or bad once they started bleeding. A fairytale version of DNA. It was standard procedure in my father’s stories for me to come to the rescue. I flew through the air in my pink pyjamas and landed fearlessly among the hostile goblins. I drew my secret sword and cut them down like flies. I knelt beside the motionless mouse. I stroked him gently, my hands blue with his royal blood. I felt his body shudder as his heart started beating…

He made a remarkable recovery. Next morning when I woke, the tooth was gone and there two coins instead of one inside my slipper. I didn’t miss my ivory tooth at all. Another one soon grew to take its place.

I wish it had been as easy to replace a baby.


Recent comments:

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    August 4th, 2007 @13:40 #

    Crime Beat in the news! Mike & Barbara's joint blogging efforts merited a small piece in the Cape Times yesterday, which was re-run on IOL's Tonight page. Check it out:

    Never mind that they got BOOK SA's name wrong ("Books SA", they called it)!

  • Phil
    August 6th, 2007 @16:10 #

    This is my very first blog – so please be gentle with me.
    After muddling up my registration and password a few times, I hope I have finally figured out how to do this.

    I have read all 5 installments of the new Crime Beat story – Cameleon – by Barbara Erasmus and feel I must comment.

    Firstly on this method of bite size novel reading. Its great. A bit like ye olde daily comic strips that ever so slowly, without too much effort has you snared and caught up in a saga you would probably have missed out on.

    Secondly I really do enjoy Barbara Erasmuse’s writing. I’ve read both her previous novels and loved them. So good to have a South African writer not banging on about apartheid. Already I am engrossed in this character and will definitely be watching out for the next installment.


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