Piece for House & Leisure

My boyfriend Tom rents a beautiful, sunny flat in Tamboerskloof, just off Kloof Street. It’s one of those typified ‘old school’ architectural marvels that are increasingly sought after these days, with pine wood floors, elegant archways, and big wood-framed windows overlooking Lion’s Head and Table Mountain. In the morning, I like to tiptoe to the lounge, where I drink tea on a vintage emerald camel back couch as the sun streams in, making dust particles dance.

Recently, Tom had an unexpected visitor – a researcher who claimed to be writing a book about the little known life of Denise Darvall – the donor for Christiaan Barnard’s first ever human heart transplant. After informing Tom that his flat was once the abode of Denise and her family, he asked to be allowed inside to wander around and soak up the ambiance. Tom, of course, obliged, but never heard back from the eccentric professor once he went on his way.

Knowing a house’s history somehow changes the feeling of it. In a way, it’s no longer yours – it becomes a shared space which embraces guests into its arms for a season. The house remains, but the people change, and history sweeps in and out the doors, the walls enclosing a constant flux of loves, hopes, quarrels and quagmires. The heart may change but the frame remains the same – a skeleton of strength reinvigorated by each new family.

Sometimes as I drink my tea, I imagine a young Denise sewing quietly by the window. The morning light catches the honey highlights of her dark unruly curls, not yet tamed into their polite coiffure, and one solitary strand falls carelessly across her cheek – a tiresome tickle she’s too engrossed to flick away. Her hands move rhythmically at their task – a yellow dress I imagine Belle would choose for her first dance with the Beast. At 25 she’s young and intense, with caterpillar brows furrowed in a slight grimace, and a spare needle clenched between her lips. She growls periodically at Keith her younger brother, whose singing in a silly high pitched voice to get her attention. Through the door and to the left, her parents potter in the kitchen, arguing happily over what to have for lunch.

Denise was killed on Sunday, 2 December 1967.

On their way to visit friends, the Darvall family stopped in at a bakery in Observatory to get a treat for tea. Denise and her mom were returning with the cake to the car when they were knocked over, and Mrs. Darvall was killed immediately. Catapulted across the road, Denise sustained severe head injuries, and was rushed to Groote Schuur Hospital. She stayed on life support for a little while but was brain dead and unresponsive. That night, her heartbroken father made the decision to stop trying to revive her, and consented to the transplantation of her heart and kidneys.  Her kidneys went to 10 year-old Jonathan van Wyk, while her heart was used for Barnard’s groundbreaking surgery – it began beating in Louis Washkansy’s chest at 05hr58 the next day.

Not much is known of Denise aside from the fact that she was a bank clerk who loved to sew, read romance novels, listen to Joan Sutherland, and was sometimes affectionately known as Denny.  What is for certain is that although Washkansky only survived for 18 days post surgery, Barnard’s revolutionary operation paved the way for modern medicine’s heart surgeries to save the lives of countless individuals. And it all started with one woman, who lived in this flat, and died too young.

As I type this, I’m lying on my favourite green sofa again, my back getting hot in the last rays of the afternoon sun. I’m not superstitious and I don’t believe in ghosts, but it does sometimes feel like there’s a presence here beyond me and Tom. Not a presence so much as a feeling – a sense that this home has seen things we can’t even imagine. Sometimes I catch faint whispers of conversations hovering in corners like cobwebs. Periodically there’s a sweet smell like an older woman’s closet. What memories hang suspended in these sunbeams? What heartache clings like bolsters to the beams? Dear Denny, I wonder if we would be friends if we had both been alive at the same time. We both love(d) this house. Come for tea any time.



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