By Maude Sandham and Nicola Pilkington
It is my memory or absence of memory that has turned my grandfather into a shadow in my recollections. I can feel him hunching over us crowded at a table, dividing something up between us. Looking up I see the outline of his jaw, his barreled chest, his boep, arms thin. He is a silhouette on a chair in the living room with light casting a film around his upper-half. He is yellow and sunken black eyes: a screen print. He is made more flesh more real in photos though they are also only copy, outline, layers of pigment.
He is upright fast walking but never running outline on the horizon. He is on his way coming or on his way going from the retread stories collected from my family. He is ghost to some.
Researching my grandfather has been far more difficult than I had imagined. Or rather harder in ways, I didn’t expect it to be. He is so precise and clear to me, and yet he is neither one thing or another – his actions and words in contradiction, other’s memories of him either comfortingly similar echoes or total juxtaposition. He is on the periphery of my vision like a fuzzy, blurry spot, and when I turn to try and look directly at it, it vanishes and settles on another periphery just out of reach.
The shadow my grandfather cast over his children is immense – he made specific choices every day and in turn, these choices influence his children, and through them, they cast his shadow over another generation.
My grandfather had such clear ideas and ideals for his family and for himself. And at the same time he is in between: not quite black or white, light or dark, and still, he is not transparent. He is the line of paint before the depth of black in a Caravaggio painting, he is many small pigments arranged into meaning, he is the imprint of a light bulb on the blackness of your eyelid.
The more research I do, the more I wonder if I would have liked my grandfather. I would, as I do now, love and care for him. But I am not sure that I would have liked him. I know the least about him of all the children and grandchildren, and yet I was the first one to learn his secret. I was born in 1991, and my grandfather Alan Sandham died in 1996.
It seems to me that he was dismissive and unreasonable. That he was a terrible communicator and emotionally unavailable, to most people, but especially those closest to him.
He was this way perhaps because he had himself very little opportunity to learn any better. Absent father, the middle child of seven children, orphaned at 12, passed around from sibling to foster parent, eventually left to raise himself.
But this doesn’t stop me from condemning his behaviour. It is understandable but it is not justifiable. It scares me. I recognise so much of this behaviour in my own father. I recognise so much of this in me.
I have lately spent too much time looking at my face in the mirror. Unlike previous times I am not looking with disdain at new pimples or old scars but I’m looking at how and it why it is the way it is. There are particular dents made in my cheekbones when I smile. I have been given these by my mother and my grandmother before her. The frown lines from my father, and his father before him. A dynasty of great scowlers. There are the genetics plain to see in my face, unasked for, made choices of a kind, by hundreds of tiny molecular deviations, mutations, hybridisations.
And then there is the life I have lived that has traced my skin – falls, scratches, obsessive thoughts that have created these lines in my forehead. Patience and pretence that have etched lines around my mouth; wrinkles around my eyes from loving and being loved. Flesh and muscle and meat shaped like a landscape. Paths walked into fields. Spoor trekked into the earth by creatures long gone.
I look for traces of him in my own face. I take photographs of him and in front of the long mirror in the entrance of my small flat in Melville, I cock my head to one side, eyes flitting between the photograph of him on the table and my reflection in the mirror.
First, the game is me playing detective: Is it the frown? The eye wrinkles? The glare? Forehead? Nostrils? And then the game turns into something else: I am now playing copycat trying to transform my face into his, accumulating features until my face resembles his. A sort of paint by numbers. And yet the result is lacking. Just like the photo of the person is constructed and frozen and lacks the motivation, habit of movement, the blood and flesh memory of a lived experience to validate it.
Finally, I give up. Having spent a good hour or longer moulding my face, eventually, hands involved trying to instruct my face to be putty, to play and be more malleable to reach my desired outcome.
And then, there, in a moment of frustration and disappointment, a dismissive look thrown at my own reflection – was Alan.
And I could not recreate it. I could not have copied it from a photo or fabricated it from a story. I am not even sure I had ever seen it in real life. But there it was made blood and flesh, living inside me.
Tell m, Alan, is there something you would have wanted me to know before I started writing this? Is there something you would have wanted me to realise about you, about how all the crooked pieces of your story fits together? Could you give me clearer signs about what parts of which puzzle pieces are worn down or filed off?
Would it make sense to you that these people; the ones you raised with half-truth or half lies would be the key witnesses to your life? Your wife whom you trusted but rarely confided in, should she be the one for you now, who explains who you are? Perhaps you knew with precision who you were. Perhaps you had no clues yourself and you created yourself. In whose image? Who could you have been if you were allowed to just be yourself? Or was this you?
I also choose, every day, I think, I believe, to be a better version of myself. I aspire towards an unknown with certain known goal posts along the way. But see I know where I came from to begin with – I came from you. I aspire also to be true, truer to myself and maybe my aspirations mean me stripping away at myself to find me. Or am I constructing still?
I feel bad now. Fuck. The more I think about this, about you, human you, who willed so much in life to be as he wanted it. Who chose, and to whom choice was so important. And here I am leaving you with no choice. Stripping away at you, at your secrets your construction to find another you. I don’t think you would have liked this very much. Or, perhaps you would have. After all, it is only men of great importance who have stories written about them.
Tracks excavates the layers of myth and memory of Maude Sandham’s grandfather, Alan. She follows the trail of unanswered questions and unexplained silences about her grandfather’s past, through the personal narratives retold by her family painting a poignant picture of a man who wielded an existence on ‘both sides of the track’.
Alan, who grew up in pre-Apartheid Fordsburg, moved to Crosby in his twenties (a suburb of predominantly White railway families). A father and bricklayer at the South African Railway, Alan was a man of poise and obligation. It was only years after his passing that the Sandham family learnt about a secret he was keeping for most of his life.
In this one-woman show, Maude tracks the fragments of her family’s history, retelling stories of her grandfather and thus bringing to light the paralleled personal and national effects of the Regime. Tracks uncovers the familiar stories we tell to fill the gaps in the documentation printed in the South African history books.
Maude Sandham specialises in Physical and Devised Theatre and has performed in several works for theatre, television and film. Sandham was chosen for her directing merits as one of five young women in theatre for the Olive Tree Theatre’s Women’s Theatre Festival in 2014, as well as being selected to create the commissioned work Tracks for the Wits Theatre So Solo Festival in2017. She studied Directing under Janet Buckland at Rhodes University (2012- 2013) as well as Devising Theatre and Performance under Thomas Prattki at The London International School of Performing Arts in Berlin (2016). She recently returned from an artistic residency in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and is the co-founder of creative productions company Alt Eye Productions. She works as director and performer in Johannesburg, South Africa with a specific interest in community work, local theatre, happenings and film. She particularly enjoys creating devised collaborative work that is freaky, brave and socially aware.
Nicola Pilkington is a theatre-maker, documentarian, and educator of the dramatic arts. Nicola has been a part of several projects, collaborative in nature, that often combine live performance and video. Notable projects include: participation in a documentary outreach program with Actuality Media in 2015, directing a short documentary: Cooking for the Guatemalan Dream; co-directing the Naledi nominated production of William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (NCT) in 2016, which travelled to over 120 schools around South Africa and Swaziland; and was the videographer for Rebirth of IQHAWE, a collaboration with young performance artist Oupa Sibeko, resulting in a video-dance installation exhibited at the Wits Art Museum. Recently, Nicola was worked with Urucu Media helping coordinate various projects and productions, including the Realness Pan-African Screenwriter’s Residency held at Nirox in 2017. Nicola is currently a production assistant and venue manager at POPArt Theatre in Maboneng and a lecturer in the Theatre and Performance division at the Wits School of the Arts.