Hope rebuilt after fire

Raymond Mathonsi and Lesley Thomas bring some light to the bathroom, where the fire was started.

On a quiet street in Fish Hoek, on Monday April 16, Lesley Thomas lost almost everything.

Her ex doused her home with petrol, set it alight and then put a gun to his head.

It was supposed to be the end of everything; for Lesley and her children, it almost was.

But then, there was Raymond Mathonsi.

“I was here one day, picking through what was left of my world, and Raymond walked up,” says Lesley. “He asked if he could approach the door. Then he introduced himself and said simply: ‘I am here to help.’ He worked four hours straight, the first night.”

He is, Lesley says, the only person to have actually come forward, and stayed. No fanfare, no expectations, and he does what he does in the full knowledge that this is not paid work.

Many offered help, but over the weeks and months since her home was darkened by that act, it is only Raymond who has stuck by her.

After her insurance company refused to pay out, it has been just the two of them, working steadily towards completion.

Raymond lives in Masiphumelele with his wife, Andiswa. He works a full day, five days a week laying network cabling for tech firm EOH and is on call on some weekends. But when his work day ends, he drives to Lesley’s home. There is much to be done, he says.

“Every day, we make it a bit better. If we take only two steps a day, there is still a way we have walked at the end of the week. If we only do this part of the wall today, at the end of the week, it is still good, we have then done the whole wall,” he says.

At first, they cleaned. Every wall needed to be scraped, Every door.

Every night and every weekend they peeled away what was burned and threw out what was irretrievable.

“I was in such shock in the beginning. I couldn’t even decide where to place new light-bulb connections,” says Lesley. “Those early days, with people walking over the burned remains of the house, all of it was such a violation of privacy. Yes – everything was burned – but those were all the pieces of my life.”

The piano was beyond hope, but behind it, two favourite oil paintings were found, strangely undamaged.

Now, these six months on, they are building. And painting. And Lesley is healing. And even, laughing.

Necessity is a strange thing, she says. She has used the rebuilding as a focus. It is an honest therapy, she says.

“The slow rebuilding is possibly even a blessing, because all of it is being consciously done. There is no trace of what happened here still in this house,” she says. “None of the shock nor negativity.”

Every day, Raymond and Lesley are building a new reality, giving the house a new energy.

They are learning together too – because some of the things they are doing, neither of them have done before. Ceilings? Not on either of their résumés… but that’s not stopping them. Ceilings simply need to be installed.

Winter, Lesley says, was rough. Sleeping on her makeshift bed with the house in that state was, modestly put, cold. She turns, with an unexpected smile, and says, “Not every night was bad. It was a bit like camping indoors.” And she laughs, pointing out the fireplace.

Behind the makeshift bed in her lounge – two single mattresses on a door, on crates – is the bright shade of blue for her kitchen. On the bed, is her tiny 12-year-old black cat, curled in contented sleep.

And her laughter now is at Raymond who is wrinkling up his nose. It’s not his choice of colour, he says, looking rather pained. “But my sister likes it, so I painted it on,” he says, giving a slow smile.

This use of “sister” and “brother” has become part of their language. It is part respect, part acknowledgement of family beyond constraints of previous thought.

Why is Raymond here, why is he helping? Lesley says she asked him in the beginning. What made him take those first steps to her burned door? What makes him take them, still? He didn’t really answer me, she says.

He pauses, and Lesley takes a phone call outside. Raymond is sombre, and very still as he speaks. “I know what it is, to be alone. I know what it feels like, to have nothing,” he says. “I know, these things.” His voice is far away.

He glances outside. “I am here so often because there is so much to do. But also, I don’t want to leave her alone. My wife, she is a beautiful person. I am very lucky to have her. We have been married since 2015. She met Lesley, and she told me – you finish this. And you make sure, you are there for her. She is family now.”

He says to him, this is a simple act. He is acting in the spirit of ubuntu. We all can, he says. His word matters, and in the beginning, he gave his word. What about now? “Now I am here for my sister,” he says.

He mentions his utter dread last week when he arrived and Lesley didn’t answer her door. He felt sick, he says. “I thought, she couldn’t have… no… not when we have worked so hard… gotten so far.”

Lesley was just asleep and hadn’t heard him knock.

Over coffee, she says, “Many people still have no idea this happened. But to me, the tragedy and the history and all the details of what led to what happened… that is in the past. That is not my focus. I am here, now. And just like Raymond taught me, we are rebuilding, bit by bit. This home is being rebuilt on a foundation of kindness, it is being imbued with love, and laughter. We even take breaks and just dance for a bit,” she laughs.

On her phone is video of Raymond, playing guitar and singing. Is he a musician too? They crow with laughter. No, he is miming and playing air guitar, on a real guitar.

But he always wanted to be a rock star, Lesley says. “Even though I can’t sing,” he says, and they laugh heartily.

Sometimes, on weekends, Andiswa joins in and spends the day working with them. And dancing, too; although only two can dance at a time, Raymond warns, with raised eyebrow and wagging finger. There is after all, still much work to be done on this extraordinary home, in a quiet street, in Fish Hoek.