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

© 2016 hemispheresapart.com

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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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