Tuscan Tales Chapter 31 – Water, part 2: Thy shalt not covet thy neighbour’s goods …

‘I’ve been thinking,’ I said to Liam one day. ‘I know that our borehole is the problem, but it does pump intermittently and in winter there is so much rain around it is unbelievable. I think that what we’ve got is a storage problem. If we had, say, five tanks storing 10 thousand litres per tank, we would not have a water problem at all.’

Nearby there are a team of brothers who have done excellent work for us. Damiano arrived to have a look. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘The tanks are huge but we can do it. We can level the area just below your car park, where the land drops steeply into your overgrown olive grove. It is such a drop that no-one would even see it. I’ll come and level it with my digger, and meanwhile I will put in for permesso from the commune … you will need permission.’

… there are a team of brothers, Fratelli Lepre … Brothers Hare …

And this is where foreigners fall foul of the book. First missile back: ‘No permission to site the tanks there. Although it is your land, your olive grove has been neglected for so long we have decided to declare it ‘abbandonato’ – natural forest land –  and you may not touch it. You may not even dig down and put tanks underground.’ Our land?? Our olives, apple and pear trees?? Not to touch it? Nonsense!

But Damiano absolutely refused to put the tanks there – even though he had already levelled the ground. ‘I will get into too much trouble,’ he said, ‘and I will lose business. I’ll ask the commune where else we can put them.’ The commune gave us no choice … two 13 thousand litre tanks under the car park. Plus we were to remove the soil by lorries to a dump somewhere near Siena. ‘Absolutely not!’ said Liam, ‘I’m not carting the soil halfway across Tuscany. That is where I put my foot down.’

So at great extra expense two tanks, exactly half the amount of water I had estimated would get us through a hot summer, were put under the car park. Plus a 5 thousand litre holding tank in the bee garden.

Damiano did a good job and once finished, it was as if nothing had occurred. As it was by now the beginning of summer Senor Bardo arrived and filled the new tanks with water. We were taking no chances of the intermittent borehole trying its best to fill them. ‘Well that’s that, we are all set for the summer …’ said Liam. The two of us sat back and raised a nice glass of Chianti red on the terrace. ‘Perhaps we can now sit back and relax, as our visitors do.’ I said.

The following week we had to go back to London. It was the beginning of summer and we were to be gone about ten days. After that we were looking forward to a lovely long summer filled with close friends and family. We left with happy hearts – for as we drove out of the car park we knew that underneath the two cover lids lay 26 thousand litres of lovely stored water.

… underneath the two covers lay 26,000 litres of water …

A few days later, the line between Chianti and Liam’s London office practically crackled. It was Damiano, and he sounded as if he was about to have a heart attack. He had been down to our house just to check that all was in order, and he had lifted the covers to the tanks. Not one drop of water remained in either tank. ‘There must be a leak,’ said Liam, ‘Check all around the area and see if there is any moist soil or green patches.’ But there was no moist soil and there were no green patches. Our water had gone.

Now down our valley there is plenty of talk of bandito in the woods. And for some reason our neighbours seem to have it in for the Albanians. Although I have never seen one anywhere near our area, most things are blamed on them. For instance we tend to leave our keys on the outside of the doors when we go out. We are after all at the end of a valley, with a pretty impassable road to negotiate, and if that isn’t enough, in order to get to our front door you practically have to drive over Pasquale’s feet. He seems to have inherited the white plastic chair from old Cosimo and there he sits, just waiting for something to exciting to happen. Even so his wife Manuela will say ‘Take the keys out of your door. Per favore!  One day the Albani will come up through the woods and take everything you have.’

… one day they will come up through the woods …

But despite Manuela’s knowing nods, even a very thirsty Albani is not capable of drinking 26 thousand litres of water. Advice flowed in from all our friends. It ranged from installing CCTV to isolating one tank, dropping a fair bit of arsenic in it and waiting to see which of our neighbours fell off his perch.

However none of this seemed sensible. What would we do with the ‘evidence’ once we had it? What if it was, say, old Enzio and we saw a hose pipe connected to the garden tap at our front door and leading through his house and into his tank? What on earth would we do? After all we do live ‘in commune’ and he does give Liam three kisses, a hug and some eggs when we arrive. No, we decided, if there was even the possibility that it was a neighbour, we would rather not know.

Not long before the loss of our water we had been to lunch with some mutual friends. They have a beautiful property near Castellina and after lunch my hostess and I wandered around her garden. It was there that I had noticed the cover to a well, firmly bolted down and locked. When I asked her about it she said ‘Oh yes, it is quite common to lock your water in Tuscany. It is such a valuable commodity.’ Now Liam and I discussed it. ‘Makes sense to me’ I said, and although Liam was worried about our neighbour’s feelings, our own needs won the day.

The next week Marteo the plumber arrived with eight new tap heads and unfortunately a different key for each tap. Then Rafaello, the wrought iron man arrived and welded hasps at each end of the iron borehole covers through which an enormously strong bolt slid and was then firmly locked.

And once more Senor Bardo arrived to fill the empty tanks, and once more Liam and I finally sat back on our terrace, poured a good glass of Chianti red and said ‘Well now we shall live life under the Tuscan sun, just as our guests do, and we shall worry about water no more.’

We poured a good glass of Chianti red …

 

 

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Tuscan Tales Chapter 30 – Water, part 1: The Expert from Florence …

Some years ago, when my three sons gave me my website for my birthday, they also gave me the name. ‘You must call it ‘Hemispheres Apart’ mum’ they said ‘for that is how you live … trying to pull the two together.’ I think about this often. How similar the worlds of Tuscany and the Cape are … the Mediterranean climate, the olives, the vineyards, the blue skies and the friendly people. But the most topical of all may well be water. For as Cape Town experiences one of the worst droughts ever, where gardens die, baths are a memory, taps are sealed off and the lucky few drill desperately for borehole water, why, we have had the same nightmares right here …

The University of Cape Town closes taps down …

They could have filmed Manon des Sources down our valley – and for that matter, several of the sequences yet to be filmed. No municipal water flows in nice round pipes down our road and into our gardens and house. Yet the vineyards and olives surrounding us look green enough, and so, when we finally signed the contract for the cattle wing of the big stone house of Fontana, we didn’t really bother much about the small detail of water. Sure the previous owner advised us to do two things … learn Italian and dig our own borehole, but he glossed over those pretty quickly, and so did we.

The borehole we inherited is shared among three of us, and all three of us bought into this valley at the same time. Sebastiano owns the little stone cottage perched high above our very large house, and he is first in the water line. Then come our direct neighbours, with whom we share a party wall … old Enzio and his large extended family. That makes us the last in the water line, or bottom of the heap so to speak.

Our first summer at Fontana was absolutely sweltering. The heat shimmered off the land, only rising to do battle with the sun, which in turn simply beat our plants into submission and finally death. And sure enough, one dismal morning I turned the tap on to fill the kettle and nope, nothing came out. Not a drop. It is the most depressing sight. Up the hill we trudged, for the shared borehole is situated next to Sebastiano’s house. ‘Terrible’ he and old Enzio said, ‘Niente aqua … no water.’

Near the top of our dirt track lives an old man, Senor Bardo. Next to his house he has a large plot of land, and right in the middle he has a concrete cover. Under this must lie an immense amount of water, for he never seems to run out. On the day that our pool was filled he and his water lorry had made countless trips to and fro while we stood by slowly watching the level in the pool rise. His charge then was huge, and we had hoped never to see him again. Now sadly we had to phone him and arrange for him and his water lorry to deliver water once again. Our holding tank is small, and so the last bit of water remaining in his lorry we tipped into the pool.

… the last bit of water remaining in his lorry we tipped into the pool …

Then we had a meeting. Sebastiano and Old Enzio came and sat around our yellow wood table, and I served coffee. ‘The only thing to do’ they said ‘is for us each to get our own borehole. We know all the locals and we will get the geologists, the diggers and the drillers. That way, as there are three boreholes to be dug, they will give us a special price.’ ‘Excellent idea’ said Liam, whose pockets were still smarting from the, round about double for everything, price that we have to pay as foreigners.

It was not long before an extremely smart young man arrived from Florence, in a suit. He came bearing copious amounts of paper and explained in very technical terms the fault lines below our hills. ‘Here’ he said ‘in your car park is the place to drill, and water should not be too far down.’ The depth of our shared borehole is about 30 metres, and as he was to charge by the metre dug we felt comfortable with that.

Still, I was a little uneasy. How do you know there is water down there?’ I asked. ‘In Cape Town, my uncle was a water diviner and he found good water for me. I have heard that there is an old man over at Lamole who divines – shouldn’t we get him?’ ‘No, no, this is a highly technical business,’ the expert from Florence assured me, ‘the water will be running between the fissures of the rock seams on the chart.’

Back we went to London, and when the day came for the actual drilling, sadly we could not be at Fontana. Liam fielded the calls from his London office, backwards and forwards to our Tuscan car park.  Thirty metres. Nothing, Forty metres. Nothing … 50, 60 70 metres, when would they ever stop? Finally at 140 metres came the cry ‘We’ve got it! Lots and lots of water, plenty enough for the house, the newly dug pool and even your garden!’

Expensive, but worth it, we rationalised.

That first summer of the borehole we were surprised to see no new boreholes for our neighbours, but, we thought, as long as we don’t have the hassle of sharing, that’s OK too. We even ignored the fact that no water lorries came down to fill the old shared holding tank – or had ever for that matter.

The second summer of the new borehole was another blighter. Once more the heat beat down and the house fell silent as those who could took shelter inside – the thick stone walls and small windows mercifully kept the cool in. One morning Liam came in from the car park. ‘The red light is on and off intermittently and I think our borehole is only giving a trickle now and then.’ ‘Can’t be,’ I said, ‘it just cannot be … all those experts from Florence and 140 metres down?  Impossible.’ ‘Well that’s the story,’ said Liam, ‘and what is more I have tried to turn on the tap that gives us water from the shared borehole and nothing comes out from there either.

Once more our neighbours assured us they had no water either. ‘I shower at work,’ said Marciano, ‘and old Enzio is illegally pumping water from the stream below the house.’  We didn’t chat to Sebastiano – we just presumed he was the same. So once more we hired the services of Senor Bardo to bring us water in his water lorry, and once more I watched as my plants died around me.

And once more our neighbours did not buy in any water at all.

And that is how we limped through several summers. The worst month was always August, as that is the month most of our visitors arrive. It is the time of lazing around the pool, truly under the Tuscan sun. Restaurants are open late at night and in the cool of the evening there is nothing better than to stroll around one of the hilltop Chianti villages enjoying the nightly passeggiata.

… Restaurants are open late at night …

 

But for us the worry was always there … what if our limping borehole gave in altogether?

 

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Tuscan Tales Chapter 29 – Fig Jam and Fennel Tea

I think that Liam should have been a fig tree farmer. For many years, in the height of summer and in the height of the fig season, he managed to find what must be the only fig tree right in the heart of the City of London. Every morning he would leave our house a little earlier, get off the underground a stop or two before his usual one, and break what was his normal fasting day. That was until his younger brother also began working in the City, and then the earlier bird got the fruit.

At Fontana we inherited one large fig tree at the gate, with delicious large white figs. Then, when we were restoring the olive grove, we uncovered a small but prolific fig tree in amongst the brambles. These ones are deep red, and with this one the race is now on between Liam and the birds. Our neighbours don’t seem to eat them, preferring to wait until the end of summer, and then they make jam. They are all great jam makers, and on a summer’s evening you can see both Manuela and Leila out with their straw baskets collecting blackberries along our bumpy track.

‘I’ll take Manuela some of my fig jam!’ I told my friends M&M who were visiting us from Venice.  ‘She won’t like it,’ M replied, ‘haven’t you noticed how M never eats your jam?’

‘Not really,’ I replied, ‘why not?’  ‘It’s got lumps!’ M said, ‘I can’t eat it.’  ‘Nonsense!’ I said, ‘those lumps are the fruit.’  And it turned out that most Italians only like smooth jam – you must mill it up until it resembles baby food.

‘Well I am not going to do that,’ I said, ‘Rather I wait until spring, when the first crop doesn’t ripen and I make fig konfyt – whole fig preserve in syrup.  ‘Nobody does that,’ said M.  ‘I bet they don’t even know about the first crop.’  And she was quite right. I asked around – nobody knew what I was talking about.  Here are my culinary neighbours living down this valley for generations, and not one of them uses the first unripe figs.  ‘Must be a South African thing,’ I thought, and went off to phone a faraway friend with a fig farm in a remote valley near Riebeek Kasteel in the Cape …

It turned out that for a fig to ripen it requires a certain wasp.  This wasp does not arrive in the early spring, and so the very first crop of figs do not ripen, but merely fall off the tree.  Then, when the next lot appear, the wasp has arrived, and gets busy fertilising the fig.

If you stand under the fig tree and reach up and press the unripe fig quite hard between your thumb and index finger, you need to feel a slight ‘give’.  If you can, then they are ready for the pot.  You pick them whole, scrape them and cut a cross in the bottom.  Then you cover them overnight in a solution of slaked lime. The next morning give them a good wash, and boil them in a sugar syrup solution until they are translucent and glossy. Absolutely delicious with cheese, and, with the Tuscan pecorino or sheep’s cheese in our area, mine do not last a nanosecond.

figs-stewing-fixed

Except this year.  We nearly lost the lot.  Arriving mid-May the first thing that Liam did was hop out of the car and walk down to his carefully planted ‘orchard’ … one apricot tree, one mulberry, and two wonderful new figs of a different variety.  ‘Oh NO!’ I heard a wail coming up from the garden.  ‘The deer have somehow got in and have eaten a ring of new leaves around each tree.  Crikey – as if that porcupine hasn’t done enough to our garden already.’

I had a look. ‘Wow.  These deer have a pretty good reach,’ I said, ‘they’ve practically got to the top – and just look at that – they’ve eaten the unripe figs too.
Just then Alessandro arrived for pranzo.  ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘The fence is too low and now that you have tasty trees the capriolo – the deer – will easily jump it.  Then they will be very happy.  You must make the fence higher.’  So, as fruit trees rate very highly in Liam’s life, down came the workers and up came the fence.  We raised it by a metre.

After that, and with no night terrors, the little figs grew beautifully.  Soon I had pots of them boiling away merrily on the stove.  ‘I’ll take these to Manuela,’ I told Liam, ‘maybe as the fruit is completely whole it won’t rate as jam?  Maybe they’ll start a whole new industry?’

I put some of the whole figs in a pretty glass bowl, walked up Manuela’s stairs and ducked under the washing.  Calling out ‘Permesso?’ I desperately thought of the word for fig jam, praying that I did not get it wrong, as one of my friend’s mother’s had done …

Her mother, coming to stay with her, now Italian, daughter, had been desperate to learn Italian and impress everyone.  Only trouble was that her language skills were appalling – she had no ear at all.  One evening they were invited to dinner with the smart ‘Chianti set’.  That afternoon my friend found her mum studying away at her books.  ‘I’m going to speak Italian all night’ her mother announced.  ‘Oh please don’t!’ begged her daughter, ‘I don’t think that will be at all wise.’

But some mothers don’t listen, and they duly arrived at their host’s house.  They were bearing a delicious gift of home-made fig jam and mother, waving the fig jam in the air announced to the entire assembly ‘Guarda, sono faccio marmalade di figha sensa preservitiva.

fig-jam-fixedYes, you and I might guess that she had said: ‘Look, I have made you some fig jam without any preservatives.’ But not so fast. What she had actually said to the hoity-toity group was: ‘Look, I have made you some fanny jam without any condoms.’ Language can be tricky at the best of times …

But now, getting the word for ‘fig jam’ – mamellata di fichi – right, I seated myself at the kitchen table. The old one, Flavia, never moves from her seat. She faces the door, and sits at the right hand corner of the old wooden table. Manuela and Flavia both peered dubiously at the whole figs in their syrup.  ‘Prova’ – try,’ I said. ‘I’ve brought a little pecorino to go with them.’  Out came plates and knives and on went the kettle.  Gingerly they tried a teeny weeny bit.

Buono!’ they chorused in unison, without one jot of conviction in it.  In fact their faces were the picture of misery.

By now the kettle was boiled, and Manuela had got out three mugs.  ‘Now for some proper Tuscan fare,’ she said, ‘At the end of summer we dried fennel from the slopes of the hillside, and maybe you would like a little fig jam made from the big tree on our terrace?

fennel-fixedUp from the steaming mugs wafted the amazing smell of fennel. I peered into the pot of mushy fig and looked across at these two old Tuscan treasures. Both seemed to be waiting anxiously for my verdict.

‘Wonderful!’ I said, ‘Fig jam and fennel tea! Let’s have it with the pecorino that I brought.’

 

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Tuscan Tales Chapter 28 – The Florentine Flop

To me the best day of the year is my birthday. The 22nd March … not the 21st March or the 23rd March. I am quite unable do that. For, as long as I can remember, my joy has been to celebrate my birthday in my home, surrounded by friends and family, and I cook. A sort of lousy Babette’s Feast, for I am no cook to write home about, but this is the day that I pull out all the stops.

This year for the first time we were in Tuscany. ‘I’ll feed them all here,’ I told my brother, who was visiting from the Cape.  ‘Us, Mila and Mauro from Venice, and Kira and Mirko from Florence. I’ll set the yellowwood table beautifully. I’ll use Ouma’s old dinner service and I’ll cook something nice – with a real Cape flavour’.

My brother, a long time sufferer of my culinary experiments, looked at me dubiously: ‘Wouldn’t it be better to just go to a restaurant?’ he said. ‘Nope!’ I said, ‘I’ll ring Kira and see if she can come’. Now Kira is a legendary cook of note. Liam would walk the 32 kilometres from our house to Florence simply to taste her risotto. ‘Oh oh,’ said my brother, ‘THAT Kira.’

And so the doubt set in …

‘Kira,’ I said on the phone, ‘do you perhaps know of a nice cosy off-the-tourist-track restaurant in Florence where we can go for my birthday?’

duomo fixed

The nice cosy off-the-tourist-track restaurant lay just behind the Duomo. It was packed to the brim with locals enjoying good Tuscan fare. Doors and windows were closed against the March chill, scented waves of ribollita, lasagne and pasta competed with the chat and general laughter of people simply having a seriously good time. The local Tuscan red flowed and our table was enjoying it all immensely. ‘No matter that I did not cook,’ I thought, ‘I feel as happy as I have on every birthday.’ My brother glanced across the table at me, lowered his eyes and smiled gratefully at his plate.

It was late afternoon by the time we walked out of the door of the restaurant. The men walked ahead while us women set a more leisurely pace, strolling down the narrow cobbled streets and gazing at the beautiful displays in each window that we passed. Every now and then we stopped to talk about owning one of the stunning Florentine creations on show.

We were almost at the parking garage where we had parked the car when another and different window display sprang to light – it was a bicycle shop. On display were beautiful gleaming bikes of all shapes and designs … pedal, electric, fold-up … Fold-up? ‘Just the thing!’ I cried, ‘Let’s go in and have a look.’

Full of red wine and bonhomie we very soon forged an excellent friendship with the owner of the shop. ‘What I need,’ I said, ‘is a fold-up bike that would fit into Campari. Then I can come into Florence on a Sunday and I can simply park anywhere, get the bike out, and off I go.’

‘Sure!’ said the owner – he was so nice – ‘but you don’t want an ordinary little one. You want one with style’.

‘Style, that’s it exactly!’ chorused the three of us, ‘It simply won’t do without style.’ And then he produced it. A magnificent white, gleaming charge ready to do battle with any of the rough cobbled streets and traffic jams of Florence. ‘Oooooh!’ we gasped.

By this time the men had doubled back to find us, and they were much more critical, if not a tad sceptical. ‘But how does it work?’ asked Liam. ‘Oh that’s easy’ said the lovely man ‘You just snap-click and the handle bars and front wheel fold back to double the bike back onto itself.’ The men walked around it. Finally Liam, with a twinkle in his eye, said ‘Well, if it can fit into the back of Campari you can have it. It’s your birthday present.’

backseat fixed

Campari was duly fetched from the parking garage and positioned on the pavement outside the bicycle shop door. ‘Snap-click’ went the man and onto the back seat of Campari went the bicycle. A perfect fit, and a perfect end to a perfect day.

The next Sunday Liam folded my gleaming new toy onto the back seat of Campari and off I set for Florence. ‘Enjoy’ he cried as he waved good-bye from our wooden gate at the bottom of our valley, ‘Explore Florence and come back to tell me all about it’.

Passing Pasquale in his orto I called out to him. ‘Buongiorno … I’m going riding in the streets of Florence. ‘Let me see,’ he replied and came up to the car, ‘Oh, one of those’ he said. ‘Better you take the bus’. And muttering something suspiciously like ‘new fangled rubbish’, he set off back to his vegetable patch.

I decided to park Campari just in front of the American Embassy. ‘It’ll be a nice ride along the Arno to the Ponte Vecchio,’ I thought, ‘and then I’ll take it from there’.

I got the bike out and set off. I crossed the Arno at the Ponte Amerigo Vespuci and cruised slowly along the south bank of the river. A light breeze played softly in my hair. ‘Oh this is the life’ I thought, ‘so step it up girl.’ I pedalled faster. In front of me I could see the Ponte Vecchio, its beautiful medieval shops basking in the morning sunlight. I headed for it.

Just about at the corner of Ponte Santa Trinita and Via Maggio there is a row of dust bins – those funny big grey ones on four little wheels. It was there that I heard a snap, but no click. With that the handle bars and front wheel folded in on me and I found myself airborne. With an unceremonious flop I landed on top of the dust bin with the broken lid. Tourists gasped, onlookers gazed … and I?

Dustbins fixedIgnoring my grazed elbows, and not even attempting the ‘snap-click’ I lifted the awkward beast up and beat a hasty retreat down the narrow side road running towards the Santo Spirito.

 

 

 

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Tuscan Tales Chapter 27 – A New Year … and Spring is in the Air

Spring is in the air ...
Spring is in the air …

 

All though the long winter months Fontana has stood cold and closed. Did the house miss us, and what have our neighbours been up to? I imagine the warmth of winter fires, snowy nights … when friends ask me where our house in Tuscany is I always say, ‘You don’t have to die to go to heaven, because paradise is right there’.

‘Right there’ is about half an hour due south of Florence. It is in the middle of Chianti, but contrary to the idea of an anglicised ‘Chiantishire’ we are at the bottom of a valley that seems to have stood still in time. Our neighbours still till the land, and three different families live under one big roof of a sprawling 17th century farmhouse. We bought the cattle wing. And so, by ancient stone, terracotta tiles, and the intricate balance that extended Italian groups need in order to co-exist, we are tied to them.

For me there is another factor: here I feel intricately linked to the place of my birth: the blue skies of the Cape, the olives and the vines, and above all the friendliness of the people. When I first arrived at this big stone house our neighbour Manuela was perched high on her steps hanging out the washing. I spoke no Italian. None of our neighbours speak English.

Bourngiorno’ I said praying that would be enough. ‘Brava!’ she laughed, ‘You see, you are talking Italian already.’ I could make that out. They liked me, and I liked them.

Now, after an interminably long winter, we are back. I step out of the aeroplane door and walk down the steps. My feet touch the tarmac. They are on Italian soil and I have arrived!

The Sita bus leaves Florence and starts to wind through the hills surrounding Florence and I sit back and smile. There seems to be a parallel action going on. As the bus climbs the hills, so my shoulders drop.

We hop off at our village and head straight across the road for the café. The owner Santino is inside and throws his arms out in delight. I get two kisses, a hug and a cappuccino. ‘The winter has been so-so,’ he says. ‘Lots of rain and no snow at all.’ ‘Oh – mi dispiace, I’m sorry’ I say. This does not bode well for the farmers as the vines and the olives like the deep snow – as it lies thick on the ground it slowly feeds the water deep down into their roots.

Very soon we are on our way, and as we walk down the bumpy road, pulling our aeroplane wheelie bags behind us, that feeling of being rooted between the two hemispheres returns. The view is simply stunning – the depths of the hills clearly visible through the sparseness of early spring. The little stream, so terribly dry in summer, rushes over rocks as it tumbles its way to Lucarelli, the Arno and finally the sea. We draw closer to the house, walking through Pasquale’s mess of rusty cars, abandoned tools, chickens and the odd pigeon or two. Manuela’s washing hangs stiffly in the crisp air. I stand at the old wooden gate and look across the terrace and into our garden …

Sandro Botticelli’s painting of ‘Primavera’
Sandro Botticelli’s painting of ‘Primavera’

In the Uffizi gallery in Florence is Sandro Botticelli’s painting of ‘Primavera’, or ‘Spring’ and I, along with so many tourists, have stood in front of it transfixed. But what draws me in are the flowers. Beautiful bare feet rest gently amongst the daintiest flowers of a spring meadow. Then look closer – there are the pinks, reds and whites of every kind of delicate flower imaginable. I read somewhere that there are over 500 plant species in this masterpiece. I could stand there for the rest of my days …

Yet here, at my very own gate, appears the riot in real life: a heady mass of tiny field flowers against the hit of blue rosemary and white viburnum. ‘Wow!’ I say to my husband, ‘Let’s leave the house and just wander around outside, it looks too good to be true.’ And it is. In amongst all the beds, winding through the still dormant lavender and other bushes are deep holes. ‘Something’s been sleeping here!’ I say to Liam.

‘And something’s eaten every single iris bulb – now there really is nothing left,’ he replies. We gaze at the devastation. Porcupine. All last summer we had tried to catch him, but with no success. We had even bought a trap and put in a tasty potato, but no go. When we left, we’d hoped he had left too, but that was mere optimism. Quite obviously he had decided to spend the winter in our garden, with a ready larder at hand.

On the east side of the house we hear our other neighbours. Elena is there walking the two dogs Beethoven and Lily. ‘It is a huge porcupine,’ she says, ‘I saw it the other day. In fact, there seem to be two, one on the inside of your garden, and one on the outside. Come and see what they are doing.’

Some time ago, in order to protect our domestic garden from wild boar, deer and porcupine we had erected a wire fence. On the advice of our neighbours we had run it about a metre deep under the ground to keep the porcupine out. ‘Porcupine will go mad for iris bulbs they had told us they will travel miles for bulbs, and for a potato.’

‘Well Elena,’ I say ‘This one, trapped in our domestic garden for most of the summer and all of the winter, must be the wild card, for nothing we try seems to get him out’.

‘Nothing?’ laughs Elena ‘You forget about Primavera. Spring. Amore. Love. Just look at your fence.’

And all along the base of the fence, like a long trench, our porcupine has been digging to get out. But why, when there remain other tasty bulbs in our garden? Then we look through the fence. And all along the base on the other side of the fence runs the same trench. ‘You see’ says Elena ‘there is a man and his ladylove and they cannot get to one another’.

‘Well,’ says my husband with a smile, ‘Let’s help love find a way. Tonight we leave the gate open. If he’s so keen to get to her, he’ll push off’.

‘But what if he’s not too keen on her – or worse still – he invites her back into our garden?’ I ask. ‘After all he likes it here, and what’s more the digging seems to be more furious from the outside. She’s quite obviously one of those pushy girls.’

‘Well, to be sure to tempt him out, we’ll put the trap outside the gate too. Then we’ll place a nice tasty potato back in the trap and see if he falls for it this time. Liam smiles ‘ … Just maybe he’ll invite her over for dinner!’

A potato love-letter? Call it Spring, Primavera or what-ever … wouldn’t work for me!

 

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A WEST COAST FARM PART EIGHT – A PERFECT DAY (November 2015)

... to wake up to this view every morning ...
… to wake up to this view every morning …

In the early morning the sun rises from behind our row of houses, sending rays of light across the lagoon. Finally the rays come to rest over the hills opposite, painting patterns of hazy pink across the horizon. I stand on the terrace with a cup of tea: ‘I wonder what it must be like to wake up to this view every morning?’ I think. Utter peace. I turn back into the house, for here is someone who woke up every morning on a West Coast farm, and she is ninety today, and we are all going back …

Betty Hare, ninety years old. The last owner of the farm Geelbek to have lived in that great house. No parents in law left, no strong hunting, fishing brothers-in-law left, and no husband left. They’ve all gone. But in her heart she holds a myriad of memories of life on that farm. Some of my older cousins do too, and they’ll all be there today.

Alongside the old veranda with its curved tin roof, the marque is decorated fit for a queen. The past few days have been spent working on the blue and white theme, balloons are everywhere. The tables are set for a hundred guests. Friendly neighbours at Langebaan have practically denuded their gardens of blue and white agapanthus. The promised ‘west coast’ fare of a selection of bredies is bubbling away on the kitchen stoves.

Last minute checks and the bus from Cape Town arrives. My cousins spill out, already in a party mood. They have had a whale of a time on the two hours journey, singing all the old songs we used to love as children …. She’ll be coming round the Mountain, Daar le die Ding, Emma Kalemma … all those old coconuts from our childhood. No matter that most of them are in their seventies, if not older. Welcome drinks are out on the lawn, under the palm trees and overlooking the lagoon.

... the long jetty stretching way out through the wetlands ...

… the long jetty stretching way out through the wetlands …

From this vantage point you can see the long jetty stretching way out through the wetlands and into the water. It needs to be that long for the rises and fall of the tidal drop on the lagoon is huge. Today it is used as part of a bird hide, but when my grandfather lived here this was the jetty for his speedboat. The Century. I can remember the novelty of it, the thrill of sitting safely between my mother and my grandmother on the wooden back seat. The quiet hum of the engine as we sped across the flat waters of the lagoon towards Churchaven way and the sheltered white beach of Kraalbaai.

I remember the story of how grandfather got it, but not enough … did it come from America? Was it really the first speedboat ever to be imported into South Africa? Did my grandfather really tell me that such was the difficulty with customs that they had to bring it in as ‘machine parts’? Two of my cousins have just turned eighty. They came to Geelbek, they stayed here and played here, and they’re here today. They’ll know …

As luck will have it I find the two oldest ones together. ‘Yes, I remember it well!’ they say in unison. ‘No you don’t’ says the one to the other, ‘you’ll just make it up.’ Some things never change. But it turns out that I was wrong. The Century was bought in South Africa.

... the Canadian canoe ...
… the Canadian canoe …

‘It was the Canadian canoe that was imported,’ they agree. Grandfather and Granny were great travellers, and on a trip to Canada Grandfather fell in love with it, bought it and had it imported for Geelbek.’

By now the drinks on the lawn are over. Our mum is sitting in her wheelchair surrounded by family and loving it.

He stops at her wheelchair ...
He stops at her wheelchair …

Suddenly as if from nowhere the sound of a bagpiper is heard. It is my son. The sound of the pipes draws nearer. He stops at her wheelchair; old blue eyes look back at him. Still piping, he turns and starts walking slowly towards the marquee. John and I walk on either side, holding her hand. From behind Kathy starts pushing the chair.

Elmarie Leonard (left) with Kathy ('Klein Kat') Blaauw, who was born on Geelbek
Elmarie Leonard (left) with Kathy (‘Klein Kat’) Blaauw, who was born on Geelbek

Kathy Blaauw, the only person here to have been actually born on Geelbek. What is she thinking today? When the great gables were taken away from Geelbek all the workers cottages were demolished. Kathy’s home gone …

Tiny great grandchildren run in and out of the marquee. At some stage I join them. They have run under the eucalyptus trees, and around to the back where the old fence was and the way through to the farmyard. I stand watching them go through the gate, thinking back …

In my mind there’s a terrific squealing and some small piglets career past. They have somehow got loose. One has been caught and as he wriggles and kicks his little black hooves he screams as if he is about to be murdered. I never knew a piglet could squeal like that.

Kathy comes up behind me. Together we watch the children running across the farmyard to where the stables were. It’s West Coast accommodation now. Kathy is silent. ‘What are you thinking Kat?’ I ask. ‘I’m thinking about Sakkie the snake catcher,’ she says, ‘I think he was my mother Lena’s brother.’

I have a photo of him somewhere,’ I say, ‘tell me about him.’

... Sakkie the snake catcher ...
… Sakkie the snake catcher …

‘Sakkie was a quiet, gentle man’ she says ‘he wasn’t very good at much, but the one thing he could do really well was catch snakes. As quick as lightning he would have them in the bag, and as far as I know he was never bitten. My mother Lena told me that when your grandfather heard of his skill, he got him to come to the garden in front of the house on regular inspections. In the summertime there are snakes everywhere at Geelbek and Sakkie used to catch them in order to keep you children safe.’

By now we have strolled back to the marquee, and finally the party is over.

Cousins pile back on the bus, and we wheel my mum out of the marquee to wave good-bye. I turn back to the house, thinking about something Elmarie told me over our cup of tea.

When I mentioned how sad I felt that nobody lived in this great house anymore she had replied: ‘This house is not lonely – the restaurant, and especially weddings, have breathed a new life into it. Just think of all the couples that have married here over the past years … so many dreams coming true, so many memories that they will hold in their hands forever.’ She’s right.

Very soon we are back at our house in Langebaan. We open the garage door to allow our mum’s wheelchair through. There’s the speedboat, the Century from all those years ago. It hardly ever goes on the water, but sleeps peacefully in the safety and shelter of the garage. We wheel my mum through to her room and help her lie down. She’s very tired now. Gently we cover her with a blanket.

Almost immediately her eyes close and she is asleep. I stand watching over her.

‘Yes,’ I think, ‘Time to put the whole thing to bed.’

She kicked the gate open with her foot fixed

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A WEST COAST FARM PART SEVEN – THE NIGHT WATCH

When the tide goes out the lagoon empties. Strong currents push the water back through the narrow entrance to the sea, forcing the fish along deep channels, and the fisherman out onto the rocks. At the age of eighty my father found a plot at Langebaan and here he built a house, perched high above the lagoon. As he grew old and frail he used to love sitting on the veranda, watching the little fishing boats skim across the water, towards Churchaven way and past Geelbek. For hours on end he would sit there silently, for the Parkinson’s had got his speech. Did he think about Geelbek? Did he think about being young again, and did he think about farm life all those years ago?

The drive to Geelbek takes me south through the National Park gates. The veld is barren here, windswept and wild. Below me the lagoon spreads out towards Churchaven and onwards to Kraalbaai. The tide is still out, the colours of the lagoon ranging from deep cream, through turquoise to navy blue. Elmarie has promised to take me to Churchaven someday. For there, at the water’s edge, stands a tiny church. It is closed to the public now, but somewhere inside it holds our family bible. It was given to the church by my grandfather, and Elmarie has access to it.

The little church holds our family bible …
The little church holds our family bible …

‘I’ll see if she has time today’ I think. ‘But first I need to find out why she feels that she is not alone in that great house at night.’

This morning we decide to have coffee in the front room of the restaurant. The room with the long sash windows that look over the lagoon, the one that was my father and mother’s bedroom. There’s a palm tree outside and my mind flicks back again … back to a very small girl sitting on the grass. All around her are tiny oval orange dates. They’ve fallen off the palm tree. One by one she picks them up and places them carefully side by side. She is marking out the plan of a house, first the kitchen, then the bedrooms …

‘It’s a pity that we could not hold it in here,’ Elmarie says, with a grin, ‘Just think – her 90th birthday in her old bedroom.’ ‘The family’s too large,’ I say, ‘and she is so popular. Everyone will come. My cousins call her ‘our National Treasure’. The marquee will be fine. Now tell me about the nights alone here … ’

‘I’ll start with the first peculiar happening,’ she says, ‘Look around and tell me if you notice anything really interesting in here.’ My eyes move around the room. Through another door I can just see two small doors, each bearing a sign. One says ‘Ladies’ and the other ‘Gents’. ‘Well, apart from those two signs, the Ladies leading into what was my bedroom and the Gents into my brothers, I’ve no idea …’ I say.

‘Look at that clock on the wall,’ says Elmarie. ‘It is terribly old … do you recognise it?’ ‘No, I don’t,’ I say, ‘but maybe one of my older cousins will. What about it?’

‘It really is very peculiar.’ Elmarie continues. ‘Every year we have a local clockmaker come and attend to it. He gives the clock a thorough check and oils it. While he is doing this he stops the clock so that he can do his work. Then, when he comes to reset the time and the date, no matter what he does, the clock reverts back to a certain date … it is always 28th October 1789. It frightens the living daylight out of him. Sometimes he has to leave it and return here several times before the clock will oblige.’

This got me thinking,’ Elmarie went on, ‘what could possibly have occurred at that time? So I began to research that date in depth – but I can find nothing around here that happened then. Nothing at all. Yet there must be something, and I am convinced that it has to do with the lady who stands in the passage … not far from where you are sitting now.’

‘Oh, come on!’ I say, ‘Don’t tell me you think that there is a ghost here? A lady wandering the passages at night? If so I hope that you stay well away, safely tucked up in Mrs Ferreira’s little house.’

‘Well, that’s just the thing.’ Elmarie replies. ‘I don’t stay away at night. Not at all. In the evenings, once my family has had supper, I wander through the old wire gate next to the farm dam, and come and work here. I cannot tell you what it is like, no tourists, no staff – the sheer peace of it all. The big house falls utterly silent, and I settle down to do my books. And that’s when I first felt it. I had the distinct impression that I was not alone … the strong feeling of another presence, but not an uncomfortable feeling, more like some-one is trying to reach out in friendship …’

... right down the passage ...
… right down the passage …

‘My small study is off the kitchen – it was the old pantry. From the door I can see right down the passage. On two occasions she’s been there, just standing at the end of the passage, where the door leads into what was your parent’s room.’

‘No!’ I say. ‘Can’t be. It’s the light playing tricks on you – the moon through the windows …’

‘Absolutely not!’ she replies, ‘This is the figure of a woman, and I like her there. I am never afraid. However, since you don’t believe me I’ll tell you who was afraid. In fact terrified … Some months ago the farmhouse had a burglary. It was in the middle of the night. The thieves ransacked the linen cupboard and took several of the orange linen table cloths. They spread them out and filled them with anything portable … cutlery, candlesticks, you name it. They had come in through the larder window at the back, and that is the way they must have gone out, as the police found the window hanging from a broken hinge. But the strangest thing of all, is that all their loot – all the table cloths, still with the stolen goods bundled up inside, had been hurriedly dumped on the floor of the larder. Nothing was missing.’

... the orange linen table cloths ...
… the orange linen table cloths …

‘Now think about it. Geelbek is National Parks Board property, deep inside the park. Not a soul is around at night. If I am not working in the farmhouse, then we are all sound asleep in the cottage. There was absolutely nothing to stop the thieves making off with their hoard. The police are convinced that not only did something disturb them, but it was something so terrifying to them that they could not get away fast enough.’

‘Aha! It’s your friendly ghost!’ I say.

‘Tell me that it isn’t!’ she says. ‘I know that this ghostly figure loves this place as much as you and I. I only wish I could find out more about her … more about the woman who lived in this place. The trouble is that there no records. So I only have one wild card … a fairly improbable date to go by, and any research on that has not paid off as yet.’

‘What’s that date?’ I ask.

‘It’s the date that puzzles the clock man.’ she says. ‘28th October 1789. Something must have happened then.’

 

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A WEST COAST FARM PART SIX – GEELBEK RESTAURANT (November 2014)

Once more I am sitting on the side veranda with my mother and my brother John. Once more I hear those bright yellow finches chatter as they hop from branch to branch in the eucalyptus trees above. I know the dam is just beyond those trees, but it is obscured by a large marquee. I know too that those great Dutch gables, the ones that that housed my grandparents have gone. So too have my grandparents and my father. And old Leah, and kind simple Mot. All gone, well nearly all gone …

"now where have those gables gone?"
“now where have those gables gone?”

I turn back to the table. My mother is sitting in her wheelchair, blue eyes, snow white hair. Kathy sits in the chair next to her, watching her, caring for her. Klein Kat – the very same little one that crawled around the kitchen floor. She’s listening intently as my mother chats to Elmarie.  ‘That will be simply wonderful,’ my mother is telling Elmarie, ‘So it’s all settled now – on the actual day, Saturday 15 November, we’ll have my 90th birthday in the marquee.’

For the past ten years Elmarie Leonard has run the Geelbek Restaurant. ‘Ever since National Parks bought the farm I’ve been passionate about the place,’ she tells us. Elmarie and her family live in the farm manager’s house … I wonder if she bakes bread for her children in that little kitchen of Mrs Ferreira? I must ask her sometime …

I come back to the matters at hand. ‘We’ll have West Coast bredie,’ my mother is telling Elmarie. ‘Lovely!’ says Elmarie, ‘… and what else?’ ‘Just bredies!’ says my mother settling back into her wheelchair. ‘Just bredies?’ gasps Elmarie, ‘… er – nothing else?’

‘Nothing else,’ says my mum. ‘Tomato bredie, green bean bredie, fish bredie and my favourite, sousboontjie bredie. It should come with yellow rice, sweet potato, pumpkin fritters and chutney.’

Bredies ... tomato ... green bean ... fish ... and my favourite, sousboontjies
Bredies … tomato … green bean … fish … and my favourite, sousboontjies

‘What about a little salad or green vegetables?’ asks my brother John hopefully. There’s a definite shake of the head. Negative.

‘Well then, what about desert?’ asks Elmarie brightly. ‘Ice cream,’ comes the reply. ‘Just ice cream. Lots of it.’ I look at my brother and we smile. It’s her party. A little while ago she told the two of us that her time living at Geelbek was one of the happiest times of her life.

Elmarie gets up to leave. The Restaurant is popular and she is always busy. ‘Let’s push mum around inside the house for a little,’ I say. I want to see what she can remember …

We enter the house from the veranda door. The long passage still runs down this side of the house, and the old kitchen is still in the same place. In the dining room sunbeams are slanting through the great sash windows. Kaleidoscope patterns form on the polished floor. Small square tables dot around, with bright yellow cloths. No great rectangular table any more. No head of the table, no cousins visiting …

I walk over to the window, and look out. ‘Remember?’ I say to my mother, ‘Remember, Granny’s garden was here? Now it’s just lawn and the new entrance comes in here.’ My mother looks at me. ‘I remember your khaki sun hat,’ she replies.

Remember, Granny's garden was here ...
Remember, Granny’s garden was here …

She’s tired now. I look at Kathy. ‘Kathy, would you like to take her home – she’s had enough,’ I say. John’s already gone ahead. ‘I’d like to chat with Elmarie for a bit.’ Kathy drives our mum everywhere, and together they form a marvellous team.
Like me, Elmarie shares a love of history. She’s made some time for me and we settle down over a strong West Coast coffee. We chat about the decision of SA Heritage to pull down the great gables facing the lagoon. ‘It’s a decision I will never understand.’ I say, ‘This desire to get back to the original core of the house, to tear down significant wings like that. After all, they too are part of history. What would have happened in England if they had demolished the Tudor wing, the Edwardian wing etc – you’d be left with a Norman keep!’

‘An interesting thought,’ says Elmarie, ‘… and on that note tell me about the entrance gates. I believe your grandfather built them?’ ‘He did,’ I reply, ‘in the 1950’s. Now if you are going to be a purist those really should have come down. Playing with history is a dangerous thing.’

Elmarie smiles: ‘Still, I love Geelbek, and even though the manager’s house is small I cannot imagine living anywhere else.’

‘Ummm … it saddens me to feel that after we left no one ever lived in the farmhouse again’ I say. ‘No children running in and out, no family to breathe life into the place. Yes it’s a beautiful restaurant, a perfect place for weddings in the marquee, but it seems so, well, alone.’

Elmarie gives me a measured look. ‘Oh, that’s where you are wrong.’ she says slowly, ‘You see, I work here in the farmhouse at night. My study and all my papers are here. So, after supper and in the cool of the evening I come back. Sometimes I work until well after midnight, and it’s many an evening that, once I have settled down quietly, I know that I am not alone.’

With that she glances at her watch. ‘Oh help!’ she exclaims, ‘My next appointment is here. It’s a wedding the Saturday after your mums party. Come back tomorrow and we’ll have breakfast under the trees …’

Geelbek ... a perfect place for weddings ...
Geelbek … a perfect place for weddings …

 

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A WEST COAST FARM PART FIVE : NO TURNING BACK (February 1985)

For some time I’ve needed to go back. Go back to the place that held my girlish dreams in the palm of its hand. ‘I’ll grow up and make lots and lots of money, I’ll buy it back. I’ll do anything, anything that it takes.’ Geelbek. Isolated peace. One foot in the Langebaan lagoon – in the world of salt marshes, wild pigs, flamingos and fishing, and one foot in the dry arid scrubland that is so much part of the desert waste of the western Cape coast …

there are two small windows on the veranda side
there are two small windows on the veranda side

The house runs down towards the Langebaan lagoon. There are two small windows on the veranda side, facing away from the lagoon. One of them is ajar, loose hinges swaying in the breeze, I turn to the friend I have brought with me. ‘Look, we can get in there. If you lift me up, I’ll lower myself in.’

I stand on my friend’s back, twist diagonally across the small square window frame. Once through I rest my hands on the cement floor, letting my body follow. ‘I’m in!’ The inside of my head seems to be swelling and I put my finger on my forehead, trying to help force my memory back. What do I know, and what have I been told?

I know that the small side room that I am standing in was my bedroom as a child. There’s nothing in it now. Cement floor, exposed tin curving in an arc above me. I think my father and grandfather bricked in this section of the long stoep once my brother was born. Where was my bed? I don’t know, can’t remember. I pad down the long passage towards the kitchen, looking for the outer door onto the verandah. Dust and cobwebs everywhere, the smell of must.

‘I’ll open up.’ I yell. ‘The key’s on the inside.’ The old stinkwood door creaks, sticks. I give it a kick. Suddenly light floods in, lighting up the yellowwood beams above, the terracotta floors below. I follow a dusty ray, along the passage. To the left, the dining room, to the right the kitchen. Long wooden stairs rise steeply to the loft.

The old range stands empty. No fires now. A blackened chain hangs down one side. Where’s old Leah, her gentle face reddened by the heat, an old apron wound around her ample middle? ‘Kom binne my kind, daar’s lekker koffie in die kan.’ Come inside my child, there’s delicious coffee in the pot.’

And where’s my grandmother’s garden? I can see her now – large rush basket under her arm, hatless despite the relentless African sun. Her clippers are in her gloved hands, and she’s in amongst her favourites … foxgloves, carnations, roses and lupins. She loved that garden. The house formed two sides of the square, and a low curved limestone wall the other two sides. There was a sundial in the middle and a small wooden gate opposite, leading out towards the eucalyptus trees.

Here it is, the door from the house leading into the walled garden …

Courtyard garden showing back of the gabled wing … the front faced the lagoon.
Courtyard garden showing back of the gabled wing … the front faced the lagoon.

I push it open and stand, transfixed. Raw grey-white sand looks back at me. There is not one single plant, not even a weed. The sundial is lying in pieces in the centre. There’s no gate. A sheet of rusty tin has been nailed across the gap in the wall. Three ostriches stand and look at me. ‘Get out,’ they seem to hiss, ‘This is not your place any more. You have no business here. Shove off.’ I close the door, turn my back on them.

Slowly I move back down the passage, past my bedroom, and my brother’s. Here’s my parents’ room. It is in the first wing of the gabled section, and I don’t remember any of it. Only the long wooden sash windows reaching right down to the floor and the palm tree outside …

Lena stands under the palm, the fronds sheltering her from the heat. She’s old Leah’s daughter. ‘Don’t cry, come sit under the tree. Your mummy’s gone on the horses with your daddy, she’ll be back soon.’ I sit in between Lena and her small daughter, ‘Klein Kat’ – little Kathy. Klein Kat smiles, her small hand picks up the first of the bright orange palm nuts from the grass. Together we start to build.

The interleading door from my parent’s room to the great verandha is missing and I can see across the huge covered space that bridges the two Cape Dutch gables. The coir matting is still on the floor and the view from here is magnificent. I look through the big picture windows, out through the two palms flanking each gable, and across the lawn to the gate in the long low hedge.

Out and across the tidal marshes that edge the lagoon. I can just see the line of the old jetty. ‘Come on’ my grandfather is saying, ‘Pack that picnic basket, we’re going to give this new speedboat a run for its money. It’s called a Century, one of the finest makes you can get. She’s come all the way from America, one of the first to be imported into South Africa. Let’s see if the Yanks are up to it.’

... let’s see if the Yanks are up to it ...

… let’s see if the Yanks are up to it …

Hop, skip, jump along the jetty. Miss the rotting planks. Grandmother’s got her scarf wrapped tightly round her blue rinse curls, my mother, beautiful, swings her long legs easily over the side of the Century.

I move away, crossing the vast expanse and up the steps into the final gabled wing, my grandparents wing. ‘Whatever happened to those feather eiderdowns?’ I wonder, ‘The ones with the pink English rose pattern?’ Granny loved pink. ‘Who’s got them now?’ I wonder. ‘One of my cousins I suppose.’ It’s a pity feather eiderdowns can’t talk …. ‘Snuggle in, snuggle in – it’s Sunday morning and we’re not going anywhere. Now where’s the story today? Who’s going first?’ ‘Well,’ says Grandfather ‘The higher up the mountain, the greener grows the ….’

‘Oh no you don’t!’ says my Grandmother, ‘you can stop right there.’ Grandfather was naughty. We loved that.

It’s full circle now. Nothing more in the house. I retrace my steps until I get to the side stoep door. Just off the veranda the big old brass tap is still there. I look at it hard. ‘She’s too lively.’ My grandmother’s voice comes floating though from the kitchen. ‘Lena can’t cope with John as a baby and also watch her, keep her safe. Thank heavens for Mot, even if he is a bit simple, he seems to follow her everywhere, he just loves her.’

Mot’s waiting by the brass tap. His hat’s on his head at a crazy angle and his shirt is torn. He’s rubbing his eyes with his fists … ‘What’s the matter Mot? Are the other children teasing you again? What have they done now? Did they take your little draad-karretjie – wire car – that you made so carefully? Did they throw it in the reeds again? Come Mot, come, don’t cry. You’re here, I’m here. Let’s go past the dam and through the farmyard gate. If we hold hands tight the geese won’t get us, won’t peck our eyes out. Then we can go to Louise, the farm manager’s daughter. Her mum will give us kaaings and butter on hot white bread.’

I move across to the dam and climb onto the raised flower bed that runs around it. I pull myself up onto the wall and look down. Green slimy water lies halfway down, dragonflies busily skimming the water. Helicopters, we used to call them.

I perch on top of the wall and look around. Enormous eucalyptus trees tower above me, their branches bowed by finches’ nests. The sound is almost deafening as their busy green and yellow bodies dart in and out of their upside down homes.

I peer through one of the thickest trees. I can just see the start of the long stable wing, all doors barred shut. No horses now. I look further down the line of trees and the tall entrance gates come into view.

I remember my grandfather and one of my uncles building them … ‘this is a good place to teach her to drive, nothing can go wrong’ said my grandfather …

How we loved that story! My aunt bravely boarded the old Chevrolet and inched slowly from the farmhouse door towards the new gates. Closer and closer she got, somehow mesmerized by the black wrought iron – until it enfolded her and the Chevrolet in a tight embrace. ‘I’ll never drive again!’ she announced, and fled back to the safety of the house.

Once more I look beyond the last eucalyptus tree, on towards the white pillars. In my minds eye I see some cousins lolling around the wrought iron, waiting and watching for a speck of dust far, far away as visitors battle down the hump-back dirt road with its eighteen gates. But no visitors will be coming here now. No-one will be watching out for the name ‘Geelbek‘ written on the white pillars.

...cousins ... waiting and watching ...
…cousins … waiting and watching …

A stiff breeze has come up, and I hear those huge gates starting to creek forlornly on their rusty hinges. There’s nothing here for me now. No turning back. And finally, it is time to leave.

I jump down, off the dam wall, pick a cutting from the wild red pelargonium that has surrounded the dam forever. I turn, and move towards the gates and the long white chalk road that stretches beyond.

 

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A WEST COAST FARM – PART FOUR – DUST TO DUST (circa the 1950s)

When I was about six, and my brother John about three, my grandfather fell ill. When I think back on it now I am not really surprised, but in those days we did not know. My grandfather smoked more cigarettes than anyone I have ever known. Every Friday we would drive away from the farm, and risk the eighteen gates and the car-sickness, so that we could get to the little town of Darling to buy stores. But now I think it was maybe to buy cigarettes.

Grandfather used to start getting into a panic on about Wednesday, and I can remember it well. Then he used to scratch the little pieces of tobacco out of the ‘stompies‘ –the stumps – that he had smoked, and save this tobacco. By Friday morning he had truly run out of cigarettes, and he used to roll this stompie tobacco up in lavatory paper and make do, smoking it until we got to the general dealer in Darling.

The little village of Darling
… the little town of Darling …

So my grandfather coughed. He coughed and coughed and coughed. Yet I do not remember anyone telling him to give up cigarettes, or suggesting that he stopped smoking. All I remember is that he became very ill and he had to go back to the city, and we all packed up and left for Cape Town.

We stayed with one of my uncles in a house with a long, long passage from the front door to the back door, and my grandfather lay ill in the room leading off from the middle of the passage. My cousins and I would run, and then stop still and slide on the mat. ‘Shh,’ my mother would say, ‘your grandfather is not well’.

And we would hear the coughing and go outside and feel hollow inside.

Then one morning my father came to my bedroom and sat down on my bed and ruffled my head. ‘Just a little while ago your grandfather died,’ he said, ‘and you’re not to be sad. You’ve got a lively mind and I think you can understand these things. Think of all the lovely things you’ve done with him on the farm, and all the stories he’s told you and his special naughty poems that you loved. Be happy that he was alive, not sad that he’s dead.’

But all I could think of was the coughing and coughing and that I wouldn’t see him anymore, and I didn’t know where he had gone, and that worried me a lot.

Long, long after that I used to wake up in a panic, not knowing where my place in the universe was, and terrified because I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. This lasted until Uncle Chips died, when I was about twelve, and my mother got one of the first of her very bad migraines and could not go his funeral.

Uncle Chips was one of her favourite uncles. A real ‘Mr Chips’, he had been a school master all his life. He was devoted to teaching and the funeral was to be an enormous one. ‘Don’t worry,’ my father told my mother, ‘I’ll take her, she’s old enough to go and must learn about these things’.

We stood in the second pew and I remember watching everything that my father did, and trying to copy. He didn’t seem to worry that the coffin was coming soon, and that Uncle Chips was going to be inside. He greeted family and friends and I felt smaller and smaller. Then the organist started and slowly slowly the pall bearers came towards us, and I couldn’t look.

Then he bent down to me. ‘That’s not Uncle Chips in there.’ he said, ‘It’s just his shell. He needed it to live here on this earth, but now he’s gone to heaven and he doesn’t need that old shell anymore. Just like a tortoise’. Somehow that seemed alright, and more and more after that, when my mother could not bring herself to face funerals, my father and I would go along, silently drawing support from one another.

‘… sell it.’ he begged …
‘… sell it.’ he begged …

After my grandfather died I don’t ever remember going back to the farm, but we must have gone back in order to pack our personal belongings. My grandfather had not had this farm for very long, and he was not happy with it as a going financial concern. He left many assets, and good businesses, more than enough for his four sons to carve out a comfortable living for themselves, but while he was dying he worried about the farm.

‘Sell it!’ he begged them, ‘And let me die knowing that I have not burdened you with a potential loss loser.’ The four sons panicked, and within ten days they had found a buyer and signed the deed of sale, and they were able to tell him the good news before he died.

Much later on my father, and I think my uncles, felt that they had made a tremendous mistake, and that they should rather have told him that it was sold, for his peace of mind, and kept it. My grandfather’s worry was that the horses were not a good financial bet. He had tried several times to run sheep on the farm but they just would not do. Not long after this the farmer who bought the farm discovered that there was some kind of deficiency in the veld, and one injection a year sorted out the sheep, as well as the financial viability of the farm as a going concern.

Once we were gone nobody ever lived in that great gabled farmhouse again. The new owner had other farms, and other places to live. No tall farming men strode out onto the veranda and reached for their brown felt hats before they ventured into the heat of the African sun. No small children ran in and out of the gauze swing doors, no cousins ran out onto the tin covered veranda, ducking under those giant blue gum trees, and on towards the dam. For decades the house stood silent, and empty.

No small children ran in and out ... and on towards the dam ...
No small children ran in and out … and on towards the dam …

 

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