Everything about The Athletic Club & Social is beautiful. I think we had forgotten beautiful exists. But since it is just a few days before my husband boards a one-way expat flight to Sweden to work, with no idea how or when he will be able to come home, it felt like a good idea to venture out of a house we have barely left since lockdown and spend a few quiet hours together – not being worried; not being parents of teenagers; not being in a pandemic. And so it was that we stepped off blustery Buitengraght Street, feeling weird about wearing masks, into a seriously lovely space.
This triple-story building from the early 1900s was once an underground speakeasy-style bar for athletes. The owner, Durbanite Athos Euripidou, went to some effort to find pictures of sporting teams of people of colour, and these photographs of long-dead men dressed smartly in their sports gear adorn the walls, watching the comings and goings of this strange, new world. If they could live their lives again, what would they do differently? What words of counsel would they whisper from the grave? Being alive in the 1920s, they too would have lived through a pandemic. What lessons did they learn that they would share with us, I wonder.
The decor and ambience of this establishment are straight from another era: vintage wallpaper, leather sofas and dim, golden lighting make for a captivating atmosphere. Lush, velvet drapes and cleverly arranged furniture create intimate corners and places to tuck yourselves away if you so desire, and we did. In the middle of this busy restaurant, it is possible to be invisible. It is also possible to live with someone day in and day out for a long time, chatting constantly, without ever having a real conversation. And you only realise this when you start talking. Properly talking. At some point it started raining and the world outside became blurry. Our dams are nearly full and still the rains come. Remember when there was a drought. Remember when we thought there would never be enough water.
We talked about many things. Our thoughts, our current lives, a photograph my husband took of my dad speaking to my brother-in-law one summer in Denmark at the christening of our eldest daughter. Both men are laughing, sharing a joke. Making it look like my dad was easy to talk to; to laugh with. Maybe he was, just not to me. We struggled to understand one another, to find common ground. Yet, here he was, in a foreign country, totally at ease with someone he barely knew. Someone who shared his practical take on life and on the world. What was a man of his generation to do with a daughter like me?
Men walked in carrying musical instruments. Our waitress carried in plates of food. She had underquoted us on the special they are running, three courses including a glass of (nice) wine for R250 and she had mistakely told us R200. Even at R250, it is a ridiculously good deal. It was her first night and she was nervous. The manager came over and expressed his deepest apologies. He offered us more free wine. Then she came to apologise. I didn’t know I would be writing this so I didn’t ask for her name, but she was warm and sweet and professional and I wanted to hug her and take her home and give her everything she had ever wanted. Or, just a chance at something better.
I don’t know anything about her, but I know she didn’t drive to work in a Mini Cooper her folks had bought her or live in a flat in Vredehoek. And yet here she was, with beautiful hair and a beautiful smile and an utterly beautiful energy. Trying her best to be her best. Going above and beyond. Saying sorry to us, who could afford to pay three times that. I wonder what she ate for supper. I wonder what her siblings ate.
Early this morning a friend sent me a pic he he had just taken of a queue of people, apparently around 900, standing in the rain outside The Bungalow in Clifton. The restaurant had advertised that they were looking for staff. These people queueing would have gotten up at around 4am to shower and dress and make it to Clifton by 7am to be in the front of the queue. Only, everyone else had the same idea. The line grew too long so they had to form a second one. This is how many people are desperate for work. My friend said, ‘it makes me want to walk into the stormy seas.’
A jazz band started up. From our cosy corner we could see the saxophonist, playing for love. The lights on Signal Hill twinkled through the rainy window-pane. The food was perfect, and we are not the easiest to please. Charred cauliflower with tahini; smokey aubergine; lamb shoulder so tender it fell apart with a fork. Baklava cigars, cardamom cake. Live music. Wine. R250 for it all, y’all. In that moment even the ghosts that roam the passages of that old house would have had to agree that life was good. The sax player thanked us for coming, joking that he knew it wasn’t to hear him play. A corny love song came on 828 AM as we drove home through wet streets and we sang along feeling only a little bit self-conscious. Next time we go back the weather will be warmer and we’ll sit on the verandah. We’ll look out over the city and the buildings and the sky. We’ll have overcome another obstacle. Maybe even be stronger for it.