It was 3am. My friend Lynell's mum was standing over me, shaking me gently saying: Wake up. For a 14 year old girl, having a sleepover at a friend's house didn't normally involve a parental wake up call in the middle of the night. Confused I asked what was going on.
"There's been an accident and you need to go to the hospital."
"What accident?" I asked.
"There's been a fire at your dad's house. We don't have the details, but you need to go to the hospital."
"Oh, it was probably just my sisters having a midnight feast and setting fire to the food or something," I laughed, not thinking through that perhaps I wouldn't be woken at 3am for burnt toast.
It was the July school holidays, and just like every holiday, my sisters (16 and 11), brother (6)and I were staying with my dad in the house we used to live in before my parents got divorced and we moved closer to Johannesburg, approximately 1000 kilometers away. On this particular night, my sisters had a second cousin of ours stay for a sleep over and I was staying in town with a friend. My gran was babysitting as my dad was out.
Arriving at the hospital, I was walked along a corridor, still utterly confused as to what all the fuss was about. Glancing into one of the rooms off the corridor, I saw a room full of people. But I only noticed two. My sisters, both sitting silently, faces pale with haunting grey circles beneath their eyes. I still couldn't register what was going on, but I knew it must be more serious than a little stove fire to have so many people there.
I was taken into a room and my uncle Dennis took hold of me and said: "There's been a fire. Your dad's house has burnt down."
"What? What do you mean? Was anyone hurt?" I stammered.
"No," he said.
But the way it said it, or perhaps the way he looked at me, gave me the crushing realisation that it was worse than someone being hurt. Someone had died. It was the only explanation. My mind whirled. I'd just seen my sisters. Who was it? Then I remembered.
"Granny?" I asked.
He nodded. Then said: "And Charles."
And just like that, with two small words, my whole world changed. The thought that it could be Charles hadn't even entered my mind. It couldn't be true.
I recall hitting Dennis' chest repeatedly with tight fists while he fought to hold me still so that I could get a tranquilising shot in the backside before being moved to the room of zombies, all of whom were fighting the unreality of the situation.
I don't recall reaching out to my sisters or anyone else. I remember nothing except at some point drinking very sweet tea which I couldn't hold still as my hands were shaking so hard. And the constant rattling of cup on saucer triggered an hysterical giggling fit.
The next day I finally saw my father, wearing soaking clothes from walking in the sea with a face awash with tears. I briefly saw my mother who'd had to drive for 12 hours to get to us knowing that her son, her youngest child had died. As a mother now with a son approaching his sixth year, I can't begin to understand her state of mind. My imagination won't let me go to a place that dark.
It's been 22 years. Yet on the 26th of July every year, we stop and remember the small, lovely boy who will never be forgotten.
In remembrance of Charlie
1 October 1980 -26 July 1987