Norma Kitson: a true story

‘Why don’t you stop smoking?’ Pauline said to me after dinner when we were sitting in front of the fire in her sitting-room.

Arthur said: ‘Well, I’ll leave you girls to get on with it. I’ll be in my study. I have work to do.’

We all know Arthur keeps his pornography collection in his study.

I lit up a cigarette, gave my usual few coughs, and settled myself into the comfy leather chair. Pauline fetched an ashtray from the kitchen, impatiently put it on the arm of my chair and continued: ‘I mean, you smoke so much. It’s so unhealthy. Nearly everyone’s given up.’

‘Well,’ I said. ‘When I was about 17, my Uncle Chips Cranko was dying of lung cancer. I used to visit him every week and he lay there, sometimes barely conscious, with things in his nose to help him breathe, dying for a cigarette. He would wait till his nurse had left us to talk and then in a weak, croaky voice he would say: “Can you give me a cigarette?” And he would point to the bedside table, with its covered bowls and silver dishes, which also had his box of cigarettes and matches. I was terrified that I would be the one to deal him the last blow, but I used to light up one of his Springboks and put it between his shaky fingers. After just one puff he would be seized with a fit of coughing and spitting, hold it out to me and weakly lie back, fighting to recover. ‘Something impressed me about his total devotion to smoking even in his last gasps of life.’

‘What rubbish!’ Pauline said. ‘It’s got nothing to do with devotion – it’s addiction. To any normal person that experience would be sufficient aversion therapy to turn you off.’

‘Well, but it didn’t. That’s the point. For those few remaining months of his life while I was visiting Uncle Chips, I went from an occasional puffer to a full-time smoker I didn’t feel aversion at all.’

‘It’s all just rubbish!’ Pauline said. ‘There isn’t any good reason for smoking. Imagine blaming your poor Uncle Chips.’

‘Of course, there was also Viktor and van der Merwe,’ I said.

Pauline lay back on the couch, wriggled off her shoes and swung her legs up to lie comfortably ...

On 22 June 1964 Dave was detained under the 90-Day Law. It took till the evening of the second day to find out where he had been taken but, with the help of a Rand Daily Mail reporter, I learned he was at Marshall Square Police Station. Detainees are allowed a meal from their families each day, so as soon as I found out where he was I rushed down with a thermos of coffee and cold roast chicken and salad. I had to leave them with the sergeant at the desk.

‘I want to see him,’ I said.

‘Ag, no Mrs Kitson,’ the sergeant laughed. ‘There’s no visiting detainees. You have to see the Colonel about that. Go and see Colonel Klindt.’ He laughed again as he took the food basket off the counter and placed it somewhere underneath.

The next morning, 24 June, I joined the queue of anxious relatives outside Colonel Klindt’s office. Although most of us knew each other, we didn’t speak. We just stood silent, waiting. After about two hours I was ushered in to Colonel Klindt’s office.

‘I have come to request a visit to my husband, David Kitson,’ I said.

‘No visits for Kitson.’ He did not even look up.

‘Look –’

‘It’s no good being difficult, lady,’ he said. ‘No visits for Kitson and that’s it. If you want to apply again tomorrow, well, that’s your affair. You can come back tomorrow. There’s no visits for Kitson today. Next!’ I was escorted out by a young policeman who was acting as a doorman.

I went home to my kids. Amandla was 18 months old and Steven seven. I had a morning job as a secretary at National Dairy Equipment. Before me stretched six months of rushing off to work, almost daily visits to Colonel Klindt’s office, preparing Dave’s meals, delivering them, taking Steven to school and then fetching him and feeding and caring for both the children. Most of our friends stayed away. They were frightened of associating with the relatives of detainees.

But that evening I went to Marshall Square with Dave’s dinner – only to have the first lot returned to me intact. Not a thing had been touched.

‘Why?’ I asked the Sergeant. ‘Why didn’t he eat anything?’

‘How do I know, man?’ he said. ‘Maybe he’s not hungry. You know, a lot of detainees don’t get hungry.’

I looked at him in terror at that thought. ‘Is he all light?’ I asked. ‘Is Dave OK?’

‘Look, man’, he said. ‘I can’t stand here all day answering everybody’s questions, you know. I told you, you can bring his supper every night, OK?’

The full text of this memoir is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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