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.

 

© 2016 hemispheresapart.com

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A WEST COAST FARM – PART ONE – OF MISTS AND MEMORIES

Along with his brothers, my father owned a brickfield.  It was situated on the back slopes of Table Mountain, where the stone pines lie down in obedience to the wind, and the Tahrs sometimes stray. My very first memories of this father of mine were him coming home late at night.  He used to stand at the kitchen door leading in from the yard and take off his big brown working boots that stretched up past his ankles.  All I could see of his face were two white patches around his eyes, and the rest seemed to be mud, or a sort of packed clay.  That was when the kiln gave trouble, and he was so tired.  I used to run and give him the pumice stone so that he could scrub his hands at the kitchen sink, and my mum used to run his bath.

Then he would come and sit, all steaming clean in the lounge, and drink a glass of witblits. I used to mix it for him and the smell was amazing – a tot of witblits in the bottom of the glass, a level spoon of sugar and hot, hot water from the tap.

What steamed up from that glass was something like liquorice and there was always a sense of awe about making this drink because my father was one of the most law abiding people I knew. ‘Always tell the truth,’ he would say, ‘and then you will see that the trouble is not half as bad as the worry about keeping quiet.’ But having this witblits was against the law.

Having this witblits was against the law fixed
“… witblits was against the law.”

My father got his supply from a friend who lived high up in the mountains at a mission station. She was the primary school teacher there and twice a year she would come into Cape Town, and on these visits she would bring these huge glass bottles with handles on their necks. They were filled with this ‘white lightning’ and my father would laugh and thank her and say she must be one helluva teacher, not like they had in his day.

Then he would lift the Persian rug in our hallway. Under that there was a neat square cut into the wood. You could hardly see it, but then two of my father’s brothers were carpenters and they were all good with their hands.

Down into the ‘smokkelgat’ the precious witblits would go. The doctor told my mother that my father should sit down every night and have a drink before he had his supper otherwise he would never sit down. But she couldn’t get him to have a drink because in the war he used to swop all his cigarettes for whisky, and that way he got to drink a bottle a day. When he came back from the war his nickname was ‘Whisk’.

That was because of his little fox terrier, my father told me. ‘That’ll be the day!’ said my mother. Anyway, one way or another my father never drank whisky again after the army. ‘Your mother’s too beautiful,’ he used to say. ‘I spent eight years away from her in the desert, and I’m not going to lose her now.’

The brickfields had belonged to my grandfather, and when I think very hard I can remember beyond my father, to the time when my grandfather was alive, and we all lived on a farm. I can’t remember what he looked like, but I can remember his presence very well. He seemed a very strong man and I think he ruled our house completely.

This farm was on the edge of the Langebaan lagoon and it was called Geelbek. This was after a fish like that, although I never saw one. The locals called the farm Twee Gewels, because the front facing the lagoon had two huge white gables. When the sun was setting over Churchaven way the gables glinted and shone right across the water.

29 Geelbek gables in colour fixed
Geelbek – “the front facing the lagoon had two huge white gables”

My grandfather had bought the farm just after I was born, and he ran horses on it. My father and my mother had to pack up their little house in Mowbray and move to this farm so that my father could help run it. But my grandfather ran it very well and my grandmother ran the house very well too, so there was plenty of time for me.

It was here that my brother was born, and it was here that I began to run free with my father. I was his shadow and where he went, I went. This was to cause me great trouble later, as no boyfriend was going to be readily accepted. But right then we spent our days together.

Of the children living on the farm I only remember Louise and Mot. Mot’s real name was Moses. Old Leah, our cook, had named him that. One misty morning she had been walking along the edge of the lagoon – along that part where the flamingoes stand on one leg and the mists roll in from the sea. At first she thought that the sound she heard was the thin wail of the seabirds, but there was something about that cry that tugged at her heart. She stopped and listened.

Something about that cry was terribly wrong. There it was again, a thin cry – the cry of the vulnerable, the unprotected primordial cry for help – and it was coming from the very edge of the lagoon.

With that old Leah lifted her long skirt, and set off into the swirling mists, her stout boots stumbling over the strong tufted reeds as she ran. And there, right on the edge of the water, in a small clearing in amongst the bullrushes she found him. A tiny baby wrapped tight in swaddling clothes and placed carefully in an old wooden crate. There was nothing with him to show where he had come from. Nothing.

Old Leah tucked the baby under the warmth of her overcoat and set off for home, her rough coat wet around her ankles. Over the reeds she stepped, and across the salt marshes she tramped, until she reached the row of tall eucalyptus trees. Finally, surrounded by her family, and in the glow and warmth of the old wooden stove, she opened her coat and placed the baby on the kitchen table for all to see. ‘I found him in amongst the bulrushes’ she said ‘His name is Moses, and now he has found us.’

By the time I remember Mot I think that he was about eleven, and everybody thought that he was a bit simple. ‘Mot is nie reg in die kop nie – Mot’s not right in the head,’ they would say. But for me he was just fine. He had taken to following me wherever I went, and my father was quite happy about this, as he felt that with Mot by my side I could come to no harm. So every morning I would wait for Mot and then the two of us would start our adventures.

_39_His_name_is_Moses_converted
“His name is Moses …” Mot, seated on the left.

First we would go past the big dam where my cousins used to swim and sail in a tin canoe when they came visiting. Then we would walk along the sandy path and under the huge flowering gum tree to the gate in the hedge. I hated going through this gate, because there, on the other side, were the geese, with their long craning necks and forward pointing beaks, and they would hisssss – and peck your bare brown legs if you didn’t run fast.

But beyond the gate was the farm manager’s wife, Mrs Ferreira, and Louise, who was my age. Mrs Ferreira’s kitchen was small and cozy and always smelt of bread baking. She was a very large woman and she would cut big, thick slices of bread and spread them with goat’s fat and give them to us. I was always skinny and pale, and I think she thought that the big house fed me on quite the wrong diet. Then off we would go, after my father, to look at the horses.

I was completely in love with the horses fixed
“I was completely in love with the horses …”

I was completely in love with the horses. We had lots and lots, and most of them were wild. I can remember them running free, across the reeds and wetlands when the tide was out, their manes streaming out behind them and the mists swirling around them. In the mists they snorted, and the sound seemed to magnify and carry itself across to where I would be perched on a fence with Mot, Louise and my father.

 

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The Cape Honey Bee … Survival of the Fittest?

... waterfalls come thundering down the back of Table Mountain ...
… waterfalls come thundering down the back of Table Mountain …

Cape rain is like no other rain I know. In the wintertime great drops of water pour out of the sky. Day after day waterfalls come thundering down the back of Table Mountain, down Skeleton Gorge, down Nursery Ravine and down every other ravine they can find. Go out and you get very wet indeed. But what mattered most this past winter is that the land got wet. Slowly the devastated and burnt earth started to come alive again. Fine pale green shoots of grass appeared and then the rest …

the rest fixed
… and then there’s …
rest 2 fixed
… the rest …

 

There’s a phone call from the Cape to London. ‘I’ve been down to the houses and had a look at your hive. I’m afraid there’s nothing going on.’ It’s my brother John, and it’s September. In October we are back in Cape Town for a precious few days, and once there,  I don’t make the trip down to the healing veld on the tip of Africa. It’s a short visit, and back on the plane to London I say to myself ‘Well, this trip I really had no time.’ But if I am honest I did not want to go …

What’s the point? They’ve gone.

Then,  in December, we fly back to the Cape again. This time we land flat-bang into the hurly-burly of the pre-Christmas season. Christmas comes. With it arrives family from far and wide. All want to be together in this isolated place, where the antelope and the zebra roam, and the wild Atlantic Ocean runs roughshod onto the rocks. Christmas goes. Family and friends depart.

And still I do not go to my hive.

We’re all getting old now, my cousins and I. Time to dream, and time to do what you have always wanted to do. After the fire one of my cousins becomes passionately interested in bee-keeping. For some reason all my cousins have nick-names. This one’s Bulldog. Bulldog does a lot of research, and in the spring of the September sunshine he brings two ‘Best’ hives down. Not wanting to disturb our fragile eco-system in any way he simply spreads bee-lure on the inner frames and leaves them empty. ‘A leap of faith and some swarm looking for a home may just take occupation …’ he tells me.

The Best hives are near the skip, a far distance away from my hive. When I was a child there was no such thing as a skip. Behind each house we dug deep dirt-holes in the veld. All rubbish went into those holes, everything, and although there was no such thing as recycling, we had our own very special recycling team. The baboons. Into the dirt-holes they would go, happily tossing out tins, fish bones, bottles and paper – until they found the tasty bits of water melon skins, sweetie papers and anything else suited to a baboon palate.

... the skip ...
… a regular skip …

But now we have a regular skip, brought down by a commercial firm. It has two sturdy lids and a strong locking bolt so that no domestic debris can be strewn across the veld. Not much fun for our baboon recycling team, but at least they won’t need a dentist.

... I am worried about my cousins siting ...
… I am worried about my cousins siting …

Late one afternoon I walk over to the skip, carrying some rubbish. I am worried about my cousin’s siting of these new Best hives. In my opinion they are too close to the skip, and it is in the way of their natural ‘bee-line.’ When a new worker leaves the hive for the first time, he plots his position, rather like a GPS. From then on he will push his personal sat-nav button and come straight in from there. This skip is a clumsy great thing in the way.

I struggle to lift the lid of the skip. The wind is howling and the lid is heavy. I just manage to hurl the rubbish in. ‘The Cape Doctor is really here in force’ I think. The Cape Doctor is the local name for the prevailing summer wind … frequently gusting 60 – 70 knots. Locals say not only does the south-easter blow all the rubbish into the sea, it blows the germs in too.

I turn into the wind to look at cousin Bulldog’s hives. For the past ten days I’ve looked at them, but there is nothing there, no sign of life. Even if I bang on the lid. The two hives have their backs to the south-easter but they are very exposed. Even when the veld eventually grows up, these will still be on the flat grass, with no hope of protection. I watch the hive nearest the sea. ‘Perhaps he has put them here and not under the protection of new bush so that , if we have another fire, they won’t meet the same fate as mine’ I think.

Then, still leaning against the skip for protection, I see a bee career past me. It looks as if it is on a roller-coaster ride as it does a spectacular loop-de-loop and heads straight into the  hive on the sea side. ‘Crikey’ I think, ‘some-one’s moved in!’ Later my son Anton goes and sits on the grass and watches. Yes, they’re in.

And still I do not go to my own hive. I just can’t bear to.

Rather, in the still of the evening, when the wind has died down somewhat, I walk across to my cousins’ house to see my god-daughter, Glen. We sit on the verandah and catch up. I love this god-daughter and I seldom see her. She lives in Johannesburg and has some friends with her. ‘We’re from Jozies,’ they say. I tell them about the new occupants in Bulldog’s hive, and then about the utter tragedy of my swarm. I tell them about nine months ago. About the blackened nucleus of brood that I found, about the burnt and stunned wingless bees I saw, about the few precious drops of honey, and finally about the survivors. Then I tell them about the robbers I saw a week later …

‘Robbers? What do you mean robbers?’ asks Glen. ‘Well, if a swarm is weak, other nearby bees will take advantage and rob them.’ I explain. ‘Unbelievable!’ says one friend from Jozies, ‘Do you think that is what happened? How can you be sure that they were robbers? How can you even tell the difference between a robber bee and an ordinary bee?’ Now Johannesburg is a city with one of the world’s highest crime rates, so I should not have been surprised at the answer. ‘Easy!’ said another Jozies resident, ‘They wear balaclava’s and carry a revolver between their wings. They fly in and clean your house out.’

‘Nonsense!’ said the Cape contingent, ‘These are Cape robbers. They just move in and “borrow” the booze.’ ‘Well, call it what you may,’ I laughed, ‘my Cape robbers did a pretty good job, and now there is nothing. In fact I have not even been back to the hive, I just cannot bear to stand there and imagine all that suffering for nothing.’

With that my god-daughter Glen gets up and walks across to my chair. ‘Yes you can.’ she said, ‘You see where the sun is now? Just above the horizon? Well before it sinks into the sea, you will come back and tell us what you have found in your hive.’

In the final glow of the evening I walk through the veld. All around me is a soft carpet of green. In amongst the bare white sand tufts of vlei grass have appeared, and exquisite little veld flowers. Like sentries high above them stand the blackened branches of the giant protea and leucodendrum bushes. They’re full of charcoal, and spiky. I pass them cautiously, pushing a path through to my hive. I stand to one side, watching the entrance, and thinking about that terrible fire months ago. What actually went on in that burnt old hive, I wonder? And what did happen to that tiny nucleus of bees and molten honey that I, perhaps foolishly, tried to save? The hive is still tied down against the wind and the wild animals, and the little orange plastic bowl that I filled with water still lies stuck in the blackened sand.

For me evening time is a quiet time, a sombre time, a time for reflexion. Homecoming time. And that is exactly what I saw. Suddenly one, two, three beautiful bees – for all the world a working team, appeared out of nowhere, their little legs laden with pollen. They settled comfortably on the entrance that I had reduced for them months before. Then they stepped inside.

settled comfortably
… their little legs laden with pollen …

A new swarm? Hardy descendants of the old swarm? Survivors of fire, of robbers, of black ants and of baboons?

Walking back towards the warm light of my god-daughter’s house I could not help but feel that they are indeed the survivors … for surely only the tough pull through on this unforgiving tip, at the very edge of the African continent.

© 2015 hemispheresapart.com

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Tuscan Tales Chapter 26 – ‘Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow …’

‘Oh the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful, and since we’ve no place to go – let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.’ Not quite so fast, Dean Martin! For as far back as I can remember, while the battery operated radio belted out tinkly stuff of reindeers racing over snowy roofs, our family was perched on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. This is in the Cape, where the hot sun shines down on a sparkly sea.

... the bontebok in the veld ...
… the bontebok in the veld …

Our reindeers were the bontebok in the veld, and thanks to a very old fashioned mum, we bravely tackled an enormous Christmas day meal right slap bang in the middle of the day. Turkey, suckling pig, chicken, brandy butter and fruit pudding all swallowed down in the boiling midsummer heat. ‘It must be so easy in the cold,’ we kids would gasp, as we tottered from table back to beach.

So imagine my excitement when we planned our first Christmas in our very own piece of rural Tuscany. Some children could make it, and some precious cousins too. ‘We’ll buy a tree and put it near the arched door in the dining room,’ I said, ‘and we’ll decorate it beautifully. We’ll have stockings hanging from the mantel piece above the fire, and serve mulled wine to all who come through our door.’

‘At long last we’ll tackle that wretched roast turkey in a proper climate,’ I thought, ‘and finally I won’t feel as if that stuffed bird has transferred its aggression to me.’

‘I really hope it snows,’ I said to Liam, ‘… we’ll have walks in the snowy woods and on Christmas Day we’ll walk up the steep chalk road to the little church and sing hymns – it doesn’t matter if we’re not Catholic.’ ‘If it snows like that,’ laughed Liam, ‘no-one will get up our road – and I am not sure how easy it will be to have a traditional English Christmas. In the first place I bet you won’t find brussels sprouts, and thank heavens for that. Come to think of it – what do Italians eat for Christmas?’

Very soon our family had flown in, and our cousins had flown in, and the house was filled with laughter and expectation. One morning we slipped and slid up the rainy road and managed to get to the butcher in Greve. It’s a wonderful place with hams hanging tightly from the ceiling, and meat and sausages and cheeses wherever you look.

It’s a wonderful place with hams hanging tightly from the ceiling
It’s a wonderful place with hams hanging tightly from the ceiling …

‘Buongiorno!’ I said to the man serving, ‘We would like a smoked gammon and a turkey please.’ ‘Why?’ asked the man. ‘Well, it’s Christmas in a few days and I want to cook them.’ I said. ‘Why you want to cook them?’ he asked.

Wondering if they had got extra staff in for Christmas I decided to spell it out, patiently: ‘Well, my grandmother taught me how to cook the smoked gammon.’ I said. ‘I do it with beer and mustard and it is delicious … and as for the turkey, well nobody actually likes it but it’s traditional.’ ‘No, no, no,’ he said, ‘You don’t understand! In Italy, I cook. You eat. You must tell me what you want and I cook it for you and you fetch it.’

‘Done deal!’ I said, happily dismissing hours of work in the kitchen. ‘You don’t’ by any chance mean the turkey too?’ By this time Liam had gotten interested. ‘Actually I was thinking of a chicken and a duck as well,’ he said.

‘I will prepare them for you,’ the man replied. I will roll the turkey and the chicken in one, and for you I will also roll a guinea fowl and a duck together. You can put both rolls in the oven at the same time.’ ‘Let’s leave the oven out of this,’ said Liam, ‘I think we’ll barbecue them.’ We had used the oven once or twice but it seemed to make funny bomb-like noises and nobody really trusted it.

‘No meat to prepare or cook.’ I thought, ‘How wonderful.’

piled high with box upon box of panettone
… piled high with box upon box of panettone …

‘Shall we head for the supermarket and see if we can buy a Christmas pudding?’ I said. ‘Nobody likes that either.’ said Liam, who had clearly put it in the turkey category. He was in luck. The supermarket was piled high with box upon box of panettone.

This is what we have for Christmas.’ said the teller, ‘It’s light and fluffy and just the thing after a big meal. Serve it with a bit of vin santo or limoncello and just relax.’

Relax? On Christmas Day? How wonderful.

Back home I ducked under our neighbour Manuela’s cold damp washing and climbed the steep stairs to Manuela and Pasquale’s. I love it up there – there’s a middle room as you enter, and all other rooms lead off from this. In the wintertime Manuela and her mother-in-law sit around the kitchen drawing warmth from the ancient wood stove. There’s generally an old relative nodding in a corner rocker and Pasquale beetles in and out bringing in the cold, the wet and the mud.

‘Where do I buy a Christmas tree?’ I asked. The assembled aged looked at me curiously. ‘You can’t plant a tree now.’ they said, ‘The ground is too cold and it will die.’ ‘No,’ I explained, ‘I want a pine tree that is chopped down – a ‘Christmas tree’ – one that I buy in order to decorate.’ ‘Not here,’ they said, ‘that would be a waste of the tree. Here we buy some outside lights, and then we find our best tree closest to the house and put the lights in it.’

‘That tree with the blue trunk, the one on the terrace that old Enzio painted for you, that is the tree to choose.’ came the advice from the old boy on the rocker.

‘No meat to cook, no pudding to make – and now no decorations to bother about.’ I called as I came back through our door. ‘How simply unbelievable. All we need to do is concentrate on the real meaning of Christmas.’

‘Let me do the decorations.’ said my daughter in law, and she put on her wellington boots and headed for the woods. Soon she was back with an armful of woodland magic … the brown leaves of the oaks, the fallen acorns, the orange berries of the pyracanthus and the dark blue berries of the juniper bush. She placed them in the middle of the long dining room table, winding some in and around the plates and cutlery.

‘It’s as if the woods have come in to dine with us!’ I said. ‘How wonderful.’

In the evening we put our names in a hat and chose our stocking. We hung them on the mantel piece. Then Liam and our son hung the lights in the blue-trunked tree. ‘Not too early tomorrow morning!’ I said to Angela, a young of heart cousin of barely contained excitement.

It seemed as if I had barely closed my eyes when there was a tap on my door and a quiet voice was saying ‘Merry Christmas.’ ‘Oh Angela, it’s too too early.’ I said ‘Do go back to bed and try and sleep just a little longer.’ ‘I can’t.’ came the voice, ‘You must get up. You simply must come and see.’ I threw on my gown and she took my hand and led me down the steep winding stairs. Downstairs with the huge arched windows all around us, we stood, transfixed …

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow ...
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow …

‘Oh the weather outside is frightful but the fire is so, delightful, and since we’ve no place to go – let it snow let it snow let it snow …’

© 2015 hemispheresapart.com

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Tuscan Tales Chapter 25 – Let the Light Eternal …

splashing in and out of the Atlantic sea
… splashing in and out of the Atlantic sea …

Born firmly on African soil, we grew up as African children do, running through wild acres of the veld and splashing in and out of the Atlantic sea. The languages, culture and experience of Europe passed us by. Totally. We learnt no French, no Spanish and no Italian. There was little chance of classical music, opera or art museums.

As the South African comedian Pieter Dirk Uys once explained ‘Africa was our whole world and it engrossed us completely. As a child I had a map of Africa on the wall next to my bed, and if I turned it upside down, then South Africa was on the top, and Europe stayed under the duvet. That was good.’

‘I’m going to learn French!’ I announced to Liam when I first arrived in London. ‘I know that it is at a very late age indeed, but I think my brain can take it.’ ‘Excellent,’ he said ‘go off and learn French so that you can speak Italian.’ ‘How odd is that?’ I thought. The French and all they stand for had long been a romantic dream of mine. At university I crooned away to Edith Piaf’s Milord, and smoked French cheroots. ‘Now I can go to Paris and sit in a night club and be – oh so – oh la la — French!’ I thought. So, for about three years, I battled through acres of French verbs never really knowing what was potting.

Then we bought Fontana. Out went the French and in came the most beautiful language in the world. The language of opera, of friendship and of love. From the gentle dialect of the Florentines to the more guttural Tuscans in our valley – those of the ‘ghasa and ghoco-ghola’ fame – I love it. And I fell in love with Europe and all it has to offer too.

There can be nothing more exciting than packing your car outside your home in London, and getting it ready to drive right across Europe. Once the picnic basket goes in, with its thermos flasks of coffee and snacks for the road, you’re set. ‘Let’s not go the same way every time,’ I said to Liam ‘let’s go the scenic route. Let’s spend a couple of nights on the road each time we go. Let’s go up through the Swiss lakes, or down to the Mediterranean, or even through Spain. Let’s do what we never did as children.’

And so we did, and it was wonderful. Yet every time that we reached our final destination, and we bumped down our perilous and familiar road I would think ‘Can there be a better place than this anywhere else on earth?’

‘You know, you don’t have to die and go to heaven,’ I said to Liam, ‘because paradise is right here.’ ‘That may be’ replied Liam but each time I arrive back I wonder if our old boys will still be there. They may be tough and wiry but they are really getting very frail.’

Then one day it happened. We arrived back fairly late in the evening. In the morning I threw open the shutters. The early morning sunlight streamed in and as I leaned out of the window to savour the moment I saw Leila down at the chooks. Alone. ‘That’s funny, where is old Enzio?’ I wondered, and I leaned out further. ‘Buongiorno,’ I called out, ‘Come stai? How are you?’ ‘Non cosi bene – not so good.’ came the reply. ‘I’ll come down,’ I said.

It transpired that a few weeks back old Enzio had had a heart attack. He had landed up in the hospital at Poggibonsi, and was now at home recovering. He is impossible,’ Leila told me, ‘he listens to nothing and will not rest even though the doctors have told him to.’

‘Well thank heavens he has the spirit to recover.’ I said.

 

the walking of Beethoven
… the walking of Beethoven …

Over the summer he did just that. Every day the old boy was up at the crack of dawn. Then Leila would take him by the hand, and with her help and the help of a stick, he insisted on slowly taking charge of all his old chores. One by one he achieved them, starting with the care of his beloved chooks and the walking of Beethoven, and slowly progressing to the more arduous tasks of strimming and gardening.

Everybody admired him, and especially old Cosimo, who seemed to do less and less himself and become more and more reliant on sitting on his upturned bucket offering words of encouragement. ‘Bravo!’ I would hear him call, ‘just a little more and you have done it.’

‘I don’t think old Enzio is the one to worry about’ I said to Liam one day. ‘Rather it is old Cosimo … he is getting less and less mobile and he’s a frightful colour.’ I had been over chatting to his daughter Manuela and his wife Flavia. ‘The women tell me that he won’t listen to a thing either … he eats and drinks what he fancies, and then sits in the sun.’

Not too long after that we managed another road trip. This time we decided to drive back to Italy through the Rhone valley, passing Dijon and Lyon, and overnighting along the way. On the final day we happened to be driving by the outskirts of Portofino.

‘We’ve got a little time – I reckon we are about 5 hours from Fontana – so why not pop in and have a cup of tea with Leo and Nell?’ I said. These friends of ours had just bought a house on the hills above Portofino and were anxious to show us what they had found. ‘Good idea,’ said Liam, ‘let’s do it.’

looking down on the bay of Portofino
… looking down on the bay of Portofino …

Leo and Nell were in and very soon the kettle was on the boil. We sat out on the terrace looking down on the bay of Portofino, entranced by what they had bought. Nell was getting to know the neighbours and Leo had taken to getting up every morning at 6am and exploring the countryside. ‘Stay for the night’ they begged, but we decided not to. ‘We need to get home’ said Liam, ‘we have already taken four hours out of our journey and we really should go.’

By the time we bumped down our stony road it was at about ten in the evening. Not a light shone in the big old stone house, for these are working people, field workers, who get up at the crack of dawn and work to the hours of the sun. We unpacked as quietly as we could and went to bed.

The next morning I ducked under Manuela’s washing and climbed her rickety stairs. I am in the habit of doing this when I arrive and it helps me to settle back. We usually have a little chat. Manuela feeds me shockingly strong espresso and her mother-in-law Flavia starts to frown in preparation of trying to understand my Italian.

But not this time.

‘Permesso’ I called knocking on their old brown door. The old fashioned courtesies still exist here. Manuela came to the door ‘Entra’ she said. Her face was swollen and puffy. Seated at the table beyond her was the large form of Flavia. Dressed entirely in black she was rocking backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards. Pasquale stood behind her his hands resting gently on her shoulders. He seemed at a loss to know what to do. ‘Che e’ successo? – what’s the matter?’ I asked.

But I knew. Old Cosimo was dead.

What I did not know, was that the funeral had been the afternoon before. Had we not decided to take a break for tea with our friends we would have been there …

Sitting atop the spine of one of the hills surrounding Panzano is a small cemetery of the utmost charm. I like to wander around it, for on all the graves, in good Catholic fashion, there is a picture of the person buried there. It sets my imagination going … who were they? Who was this young or old person?
Did they live a good life, or was it once of hardship and toil? If you pass this cemetery at night, every single grave, and the niches in the wall, are lit up. This is for 365 days of the year, through the heat of the summer, and through the cold dark days of the wintertime. They never go out.

Now the time has come for the eternal lights of that small cemetery to shine down on old Cosimo. No more will we see the familiar old figure toddling from plastic chair to upturned bucket to swing seat. No more will he weave fantastic stories around small events. No more will we see Manuela scolding him while she marches him through our wooden gate to return one of Liam’s tools that he has somehow ‘borrowed’.

A lovable, feisty, cheeky and simple rascal has gone, and quite simply, our little valley will never be the same.

our little valley will never be the same
… our little valley will never be the same.

 

© 2015 hemispheresapart.com

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Tuscan Tales Chapter 20 – Campari

Beryl Fawcett. I’ll never forget her name. She’d come from Malaysia and I met her at a party in Cape Town. It was 1961 and I was about fifteen, just ready to leave school. ‘What do you do?’ I asked. ‘I’m a social worker.’ she answered. I’d never heard of one. ‘Tell me about it.’ I said. Beryl worked among the rubber plantations, tending to the desperately poor and needy. She seemed exotic and well heeled, but had a deep commitment to society. I was hooked.

Back home I faced my father in his study. ‘I want to go to the University of Cape Town next year.’ I said. ‘What on earth is this about? he said, ‘Your academic track record’s bad, and as far as I can see, you have spent most of the past two years on Clifton beach!’ My father was incredulous. Girl cousins in my family leave school, and very soon marry nice suitable husbands.

But, I knew my father valued education. I knew that eight years of war had caught him. He’d wanted to study engineering, but by the time the war was over he had my mother and me to support.

I also knew that he wanted me to study further, but he was also right. Up to now I had paid far more attention to parties, the beach and the razzmatazz crowd of the Cape than to any studies. I could see him mulling it over. ‘Well,’ he said at last, ‘This is the deal. I’ll give you one year at the University of Cape Town. Pass everything and I’ll give you a car. Fail even one subject and you’re out.’ ‘Deals on!’ I said happily and bounced out of the study.

I'll give you one year at UCT ...
I’ll give you one year at UCT …

The University of Cape Town’s results come out in December. They post them on boards outside the Administration Department and you have to go and look them up. In front of everyone. It’s nerve-racking. Searching, searching for your name you go … Social Anthropology? Yes! Political Philosophy? Yes! Social Work? Yes! Social Administration? Yes!

‘I’ve done it! I’ve done it!’ I yelled through the front door. Celebrations all round. The weeks passed, then the months, but no car. Then, six months into the new academic year, I came home to find a small bubble on four wheels standing outside our front door. What on earth was it? I walked around it curiously. I’m not tall, but I could see right over the top, and I could definitely see a sun roof. I opened the front door … nice little dash, gears. I opened the boot – crikey, that’s the engine. Puzzled, I glanced up, only to see my father’s amused face looking at me through his study window.

"Its a Fiat 500"
“Its a Fiat 500”

‘It’s yours,’ he said coming out the front door. ‘It’s a Fiat 500. ‘Now let me tell you about it. It’s Italian. They were launched about five years ago. It was a time when Italy was still suffering economic shock waves from the aftermath of war, and this little car was said to bring wheels to the masses. They’ve had wonderful write-ups in all the car magazines. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about the Italians. When you were born I was given special leave. But the very next day I was sent back to Italy. I stayed there long after armistice, as part of the mopping up operations.’

My father doesn’t talk about the war, I thought, so why’s he telling me this? ‘Well,’ he continued, ‘Every Italian family that we came across, whether in the country or the small towns, welcomed us. I’ve never experienced anything like it. The warmth and hospitality made a bloody awful job bearable. And what really impressed me was that they’ve got style – they can’t make a garden without a fountain, and they can’t build a bridge without an arch. So when I read about this little Fiat 500 I thought … That’s the car for my daughter. It’s got style, it’s got panache, and it is virtually indestructible. Now go and enjoy it.’

Enjoy it? From the very first drive around the block I was in love with it. This was the ultimate fun car of the sixties, and as students we were there to have fun. I have no idea how many friends I stuffed into my little Fiat, but it was akin to sardines lined up in a tin. The sun roof open, the tallest friend would stick her head out like a giraffe. ‘Left, left!’ she’d yell from her lofty perch, ‘Oops, no, right, right!’ The petrol lasted forever, and so I’m sure did the car. But there came a day when we had to part. Married and with a small baby, my beloved Fiat had to go. Safety and sobriety won the day.

It’s forty years later now, and no, I’m not old. I don’t feel as if I have adult children. I don’t feel as if I am about to become a grandmother in six months time. Rather, as I sit here in the peace of the Italian countryside, with the noise of the tractor running up the vineyards behind me, and the fountain playing on the terrace, I feel exactly the same as I did when I got home that day in Cape Town -the day that that tiny Fiat 500 stood outside the front door, with my father hiding behind his study window. For … I am waiting for my Fiat 500 to come driving down our bumpy track.

How did this come about?

It’s three years since we bought the wing of the old farmhouse in a beautiful Tuscan valley, and we love it. Living in London, up to now we have hired a car at Pisa airport. It’s easier, and my husband’s quite right – we have no worries of lifts to and fro from the airport, of batteries running flat, or dirty cars. And, yes, rental cars are the answer, but where’s the soul?

Last year I found a new friend. She lives in the village of Castellina nearby and she is a gardener. I met her in the nursery near Poggibonsi and very soon we were chatting plants. When we parted I followed her out to the car park. And there, in front of my eyes, was a little Fiat 500. A bright mustard colour Fiat 500 …  station wagon! I’d never seen that before. ‘Where did you get it?’ I gasped.

‘Oh, I’ve had it for ages,’ she said. ‘I love it. The station wagon version was built especially to take a 55 litre demijohn of wine in the back. Only in Italy! It’s my baby. Because of its colour I call it the Baked Bean.’

I call it the Baked Bean …
I call it the Baked Bean …

Well, I felt exactly as Toad of Toad Hall felt when he set sight of his first car. ‘Poop poop,’ he said, ‘Poop poop! Ratty, I must have this!’ From then on every time I saw Jazz I dreamed about the possibility of owning one. ‘I’ll have a look,’ she said. But Fiat 500’s are prized these days, the prices go up, and who is a reliable dealer? The months ticked by. Then came the phone call. ‘My sister’s got a Fiat 500 that she’s thinking of selling,’ my friend said. ‘They live in the UK and she feels that she’s just not over here enough to warrant keeping it. Are you interested? ‘Am I indeed!’ I say, ‘What’s the colour?’

‘It’s red, with a sun roof, and we all love it,’ she said. ‘It’s called Campari.’

It’s called Campari.
It’s called Campari.

© 2015 hemispheresapart.com

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