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Lauren Beukes

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Sailing over a year

A year ago today, a pterodactyl kitten thing had the sky of her wombiverse sliced open and was brought out into the world, howling in outrage. It was a shock; this yowling bloody creature lifted up from behind a screen like a cheap magic trick – and the doctor claiming it was our daughter.

But we took her and bundled her up against my chest and she was cute and snuffling and mewling and so tiny Matthew’s hands shook for half an hour afterwards the first time he had to dress her.

The hospital were kind, but schmoozy (blame a family connection to head office). On day two, fried on a combo of sleep deprivation and painkillers and my own fumbling, humbling incompetence, I was trying to breastfeed when a nurse popped in to say, with great reverence, that Mr Semen was here to see us.

‘I think Mr Semen has already been,’ I snapped, indicating the baby.

It turned out to be Mr Seaman, the hospital administrator. He wished us well. I wished him gone so I could focus on the overwhelming job at hand – or rather, boob.

Those early weeks were hard, like concrete, like string theory, like Wolverine’s claws.

My friend Willeen came to visit me in hospital. She said later that she’d never seen me looking so fragile. Her first thought had been ‘I could totally take her. Grab the baby and run!’ She didn’t. Although in those early days I would have wished otherwise.


Emotionally, I felt like I’d been playing in the shallows all my life, only to find myself suspended over a deep sea crevasse. The universe had expanded in ways I didn’t know were possible.

Last weekend, my friend Dale was reminiscing about the first time he visited. ‘It was like Apocalypse Now. Matthew was Charlie Sheen. And Lauren, you were Marlon Brando. The horror. The horror.’


Our first night home was the worst of my life. She cried for eight hours. I say cried, but if you stumbled on an animal making that noise, you wouldn’t hesitate to put it down. It would be the only merciful thing to do.

In the aftermath, while I sobbed on the couch so hard that I thought I was going to rip open my stitches, Matthew, shellshocked said, ‘We’ve made a terrible mistake.’ Like there was an undo button.

We thought we were doing something horribly wrong. We got in help, our midwife, a nightnurse. It turned out that Keitu suffered from bad winds – like hurricane alley has bad winds.

Every feed (every two hours) turned into the tai chi of burping, working through multiple poses, different techniques, all with infinite patience, reaching desperately for inner calm, while Keitu whimpered and howled and arched and twisted. And finally the damn burp, or rather three of them, would make their entrance, half an hour late, like a Capetonian to a dinner party.

For the first six weeks we thought of her as She. As in She who must be obeyed. Like a small and demanding god. ‘It gets easier’ people kept saying. They also said, ‘How are you enjoying your baby?’ I never found a way to answer that. ‘Enjoy’ wasn’t part of my vocabulary in that fortnight and a half.

But it did get easier. And it wasn’t all misery and woe. She was cute and sweet and only mostly terrifying.


We called her caterpillar, all wrapped up in her swaddle. Or shark when she lunged for my nipple with a Meneer Grootbek-gaps. Pterodactyl kitten because she nuzzled like a kitten, chirruped like a dinosaur bird. Bug queen, for the intense focus and love in her eyes when she stared at the squishy soft toy bugs that hung above her car-seat like she could control their little plush minds.

We decided she would be an entomologist. Or a pro wrestler based on her super strength from all that arching, which meant she could support her head and flip over at six weeks. Or the queen of eeeeevil (especially in her black skulls Paul Frank onsey brought back from New York by her godparents Gareth and Kate.)


And then she smiled. Or possibly pulled a face while she was peeing. And started to grow out of the terrible winds and into her name, which means ‘happiness’ in Tswana.

Keitu learned to sit up, roll over, play fetch.

Wobbly, chameleon-like, she learned to crawl, mainly so she could chase the cats.

Initially skittish, Nikita learned to tolerate being enthusiastically bashed and having her ears grabbed and her head wrenched about for, oh, at least 15 seconds. Sputnik, always the sweeter and dimmer of the cats, would prowl up to Keitu and nuzzle her face. The first time, she broke out in a bright red rash.

Keitu learned to nuzzle back and took to nuzzling us as well. Her first word was ktthitty! said with much spittle and grabbing motions at the kitty in question. (As a Twitter friend pointed out, it’s not that far from “cthulu”. Perhaps she will be the queen of eeeevil after all).

At six months, she became totally awesome.

From those early hell days when our experience made some of our friends swear off sex, let alone reproducing, suddenly she made this having babies thing look go-oo-ood.

Matthew’s mom said, ‘For god’s sake, don’t have another one. Babies aren’t like this.’ As in easy going and good natured and crazy smiley, with huge gummy grins like manga caricatures of a smile.


Keitu takes delight in everything. She’s proved as scientific in her approach as her grandfather who was head of Zoology at UCT. When she encounters a new object, she always follows the same procedure:

Stop. Sit down.

Pick up object in both hands.  Turn it round.
Put it in mouth. Remove from mouth.
Turn it round.
Put it in mouth again.
Shake it. Chuck it.
Move on to catalogueing next object.

She’s developed a great sense of humour. She giggles at being turned upside down or flown through the house or when you catch something she’s chucked or at the absurdity of putting a sock on the cat.

She says a long drawn out ‘aaaaaaaaah’ of wonder and joy when you blow bubbles. She creates mini tsunamis in the bath with happy splashing. And pushes her wagon up and down the passage, up and down, up and down, until she spots a kitty or a cell phone or her sparkly ball. She loves being bounced and I’ve invented better lines for that tired classic, “this is the way the lady rides”, featuring a princess, a cowgirl and an ogre.

She’s the Caster Semanya of crawling – super speedy (and she also regularly gets mistaken for a boy). She plays peekaboo with the outside world, opening and closing the curtains and has figured out how to hide behind the couch when you’re chasing her on all fours.

Most of all, she loves reading. She sits rapt on your lap, studying the pictures and turning the pages herself. She’ll insist on reading three or four books in one sitting, reaching for another with desirous squeaks.


She’s a surprisingly harsh critic, turning away from something she doesn’t want to read or simply grabbing it out of your hands and summarily chucking it on the floor. She’s so over Goodnight Moon. She likes the pictures in the piggy and kitty sounds book, but she knows the rhymes are lame. And she thinks Spot and Miffy are crap. She won’t tolerate them for a moment, even to lift the flaps.

Her current favourites are Emily Gravett’s Monkey and Me with its simple refrain, cool animal sound effects and the lovely build-up of suspense to the next page. She adores Jeremy Draws A Monster about a kid with a magic pen and a troublesome creation, Julia Donaldson’s Monkey Puzzle (awesome rhymes, cool animal noises and a butterfly with a cockney accent – which is admittedly just the way I read it), Dr Seuss’ Oh The Thinks You Can Think and most especially Where The Wild Things Are.

I made up a growly song for the the wild rumpus the first time I read it for her, which goes something like “roar-roar-roar-roar” (I never said it was a very good growly song). The second time she sang along.

Now, the first time the Wild Things make their appearance, she recognises them and pre-empts me, spitting out her dummy so she can say ‘ro-ro-ro-ro’. And when Max says goodbye and sails away almost over a year and in out of weeks and through a day, she waves and waves and waves.

Two days before a year ago today, I was frightened. We’d planned this, wanted this, wanted her. We couldn’t wait but it was also scary as hell. I knew the world was going to change for us. I didn’t really understand how. And now it was imminent.

‘I’m scared.’ I said.

‘Don’t be,’ Matthew said (capable of great wisdom when he’s not shellshocked and sleep deprived). ‘She’ll be better than both of us’.

She already is.



Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    September 18th, 2009 @12:29 #


    This is wonderful, Lauren. I absolutely adore the photos. She is the most gorgeous thing on two legs. But you must have another one, just so you can know what it feels like to enjoy the newborn stage as well.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    September 18th, 2009 @13:19 #

    I remember your shell-shock, Lauren. I remember all my friends and relatives who have left hospital on a tide of sentiment, to the worst shock of their lives -- The First Night Home. I congratulate the dinokitten on surviving you, and you for surviving her, and all of you for thriving so beautifully. Mazel tov -- and lovely, lovely pics!

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Karina</a>
    September 18th, 2009 @13:31 #

    So moving - thanks for sharing!

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Maya</a>
    September 18th, 2009 @14:00 #

    Absolutely love your turn of phrase, Lauren. And thanks for the honesty! It's refreshing.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    September 18th, 2009 @14:39 #

    Happy birthday, Keitu! And hearty congratulations to your parents for surviving the first year. Your mom sure has written you a keeper of a card, and you must feel free to smear cake on it.
    Love Todzilla and the olds

  • ar
    September 18th, 2009 @15:05 #

    You tell the hell so well. I had forgotten how terrifying those first weeks are. How utterly unequipped one is. The missing undo button. One remains unequipped, actually. My firstborn is 21 in December, a strange and beautiful still-unfurling resolutely impractical robokid with a bizarre barefoot cocktail of a worldview, dangerous-looking metal sticking out all over her face, possessed of an infuriating but irrefutable logic that is simultaneously downy-soft and granite-hard . WTF species is this anyway? Organotech Humalien Grrl or something, if you could genreficate it, which you can’t really. I’m aware that there are far too many adjectives in there but I think it’s nerves because to tell the truth, I’m still scared (Don’t tell HER that ok?). When she was Keitu’s age, grabbing delight by the fistful, I wanted her to stay like that forever but also couldn’t wait to see what kind of being she’d turn into. And she’s turned into... this. And it’s wondrous.

    Now I must work on the speech I must write for her party, and for sure I’ll refer to this post for help with the remembering of those littlie days which are so shiny, and which are gone so fast. Thank you for this, Lauren :)

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    September 18th, 2009 @17:16 #

    Brilliant Lauren. I also love the pictures - the ones in words and jpeg. Thanks for posting.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Mandy J Watson</a>
    Mandy J Watson
    September 18th, 2009 @18:00 #

    Wow. This will be the most fantastic post for Keitu to read and cherish when she's old enough to appreciate it. (Happy birthday!)

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">GerhardB</a>
    September 18th, 2009 @19:42 #

    Darling Keitu, congratulations on having such a lovely Mummy who writes so beautifully about you and her and your clever Daddy. I cannot wait for you to come and spend some weekends with me and Louisa so that we can help you to train our Vizsla dogs into being your pesonal slaves and protectors and of course to tell you about all the quirks and foibles of your Mummy and Daddy that you need to watch out for as you grow up. Like for instance your mummy's stubborn streak which first showed when I tried to raise her first bicycle seat so that her knees would no longer knock into her chin and she point blank refused to let me touch her bike. I will show you some tricks about how to bribe your mom when she becomes headstrong. Your daddy is a total star in caring for you, he obviously loves you as much as I love your mummy. Keep a close watch on them if you are not happy with what they do for you, telephasize me instantly for expert help and kidnapping. Your loving Oupa.


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