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.
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.
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.
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. 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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