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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Sometimes visitors came to Geelbek, but this was very, very rare. We had a long white chalk road and eighteen gates to open. We did not have cattle grids where you could drive around the gate and be lazy. I can remember very few visitors, and the one that stands out most in my mind is the one that dropped in out of the sky …

My brother John, and me, on "the one that dropped in out of the sky"
My brother John, and me, on “the one that dropped in out of the sky”

It was evening time and we were standing under one of the big date palms that flanked either side of the gables when we heard the droning of an aeroplane. Then suddenly it came into sight – a big fat-bellied plane of a dull colour. It flew low low over the hedges and then circled and flew even lower, belly flopping along the long hedge that ran parallel to the lagoon. It disappeared behind the hedge, near the grain silo, and out of sight. Suddenly there was a loud bang.

My father, grandfather and the farm workers rushed up to the top field and there, belly down in the field, was the plane, intact. I do not think that the pilot was injured but I do not remember him. Just the horrible feeling of seeing the plane lying there and wondering if there was anybody hurt inside, or if it was suddenly going to burst into flames.

Sometimes my cousins used to visit, and I loved it. They would come for the week-end and we would play all day. These cousins were all older than me, and I had to run to keep up. They would pile out of the car, quickly kiss Grandpa and Granny hello, and be off, careering down the farm track that ran parallel to the lagoon – for further along this track were the workers’ cottages, and more importantly for us, children.

These cottages were quite square, with a stable door in the middle and fat chimneys on the outside. Each had two small windows opposite the door. They stood right at the end of the great avenue of eucalyptus trees, and from there you could look over the wetlands, across to the water lapping at the edge of the lagoon.

There weren’t many houses, maybe three, but in there lived the loveliest of families. They were the Blaauw families, gentle people whose history went back as far as the Cape itself. Old Leah, our cook was a Blaauw, and beautiful Lena, our nanny, whose tiny baby Kathy was learning to crawl along the flagged stones of the kitchen floor. I suppose you could even say kind and simple Mot, the foundling, was now a Blaauw.

"Sometimes my cousins used to visit ..."
“Sometimes my cousins used to visit …”

On one of my cousin’s visits I remember reaching old Leah’s house, and wanting to run inside, wanting to see what she had in store for us. Sometimes she would have a huge blackened pot bubbling on the wood stove and she would give us waatlemoen konfyt, all crispy and dripping with sugar.

But this time she was leaning over her stable door, and she called out, ‘Kindjies, jy moet nie vandag inkom nie. Vanmore ek het mis op die vloer gesmeer and dis nog nat.’ ‘Little children, you must not come inside today. I have smeared manure on the floor and it is still wet.’ Cow manure used to be mixed with water until it formed a paste, and then smeared on the floor. I never remember it having any smell at all, and it soon formed a solid base, almost like cement.

Mealtimes were always busy. We had a long wooden refectory table that could take eighteen or twenty people. Once on a Sunday a visitor came unexpectedly. He was a travelling person, and I think he may have been selling something. My grandfather asked him to join us for Sunday lunch, and we all sat down. It was roast lamb, and potatoes, and vegetables. The visitor sat on my grandfather’s left, and I sat opposite him, minding my manners very carefully.

The visitor and my grandfather got into a very involved discussion about farming, and I sat, entranced – for as my grandfather was talking the visitor was slowly and carefully positioning his peas all along his knife, from the handle to the tip. Once they were all perfectly balanced, he steadily lifted the knife until it was level with his mouth, then tilted it, and unbelievable! The peas went rolling down his throat. Nobody seemed to notice, but I was lost in admiration.

‘You must never, ever, stare,’ my grandmother told me afterwards, ‘even if you see the most extraordinary things, it appears very rude in a small girl.’

If visitors were scarce at that time, paid ones were like hen’s teeth. Once I became very ill. I had a fever. I shivered and shook, and was cold and hot. My mother was very worried, and by next morning I was covered in hundreds of little spots. My mother wanted to get me to the doctor, but my father, thinking of the eighteen gates and my chronic car sickness, decided on a contingency plan:

At that time we had the most beautiful black stallion. He was a great big horse with fine strong muscles and a magnificent body, and his name was Kim. He had cost a lot of money and he was sick. Three times that week the vet had been, and he was to come again the next morning. ‘That’s it then,’ said my father, ‘the vet must have been trained in all sorts of sicknesses and spots aren’t too difficult to diagnose.’ I was terrified of this vet coming and I couldn’t sleep that night. I had seen the huge horse needles that he jammed into Kim’s flank.

"... the most beautiful black stallion ... Kim ..."
“… the most beautiful black stallion … Kim …”

He arrived the next morning and I could hear him having coffee on the veranda with my father and my grandfather. Then they went outside, to see Kim first, and I suffered even longer. Finally he arrived. He touched my head and looked at my spots. ‘She’s got measles,’ he said. ‘She mustn’t come into contact with other children.’

The next day my cousins arrived and I had the most miserable time – for they wandered all around the farm and I had to trail a safe distance behind them.

Years later I got measles again, so I do not think that the spots that vets are trained to see are the same ones as in humans.


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‘Never have anything to do with horses’, my father would say. ‘there are only three things that are worth knowing about them: They bite in the front, they kick at the back, and they are bloody uncomfortable in the middle.’ My father didn’t like them when he was put onto Geelbek, and he held this dislike until he left.

Geelbek ...
Geelbek gates…

At first my father would take my mother out riding, and I can remember them setting off in the afternoon, and leaving me behind with my grandmother … my father with his sandy hair and fair skin, and my mother with her blue-black hair and her beautiful olive skin.

There had never been anyone else in my father’s life. He liked to tell me about other girls that fancied him, and how he had fallen asleep on a farm road once after taking a local girl out, and he had woken up as the old Chev car came to a standstill between two gum trees, but even then I knew that this was just talk that men do.

My mother was quite a bit younger than my father, and in those days he treated her as something very, very special… he was tremendously generous and kind, but even then he could be hasty with his words.

‘Teddy’ my mother’s mother once said to him, ‘I only hope that when you get to heaven the good Lord judges you by your deeds and not by your words, because if He doesn’t, you surely won’t get in.’

My mother was never as adventurous as my father, and she loved her home and home-making more than anything else. One afternoon when they were returning from a ride she kicked the gate open with her foot and the stirrup got tangled up in the gate latch and she was dragged off her horse. I don’t think she was hurt, but she never rode again. And as I got older I was never allowed to ride either. ‘A horsey woman that smells of the stables is not what I want for a daughter’, my father would say, and the matter would be closed.

When I couldn’t be with my father and my mother was busy, I used to wander around the farmhouse with my grandmother. It had an enormous kitchen, with a big open fireplace. Outside it had a funny little square thatched building. This was the meat house, for we had no fridges. The meat house had gauze windows and no glass, so that the wind could blow through and cool the inside. It had a heavy door and inside there used to be all sorts of hanging things – hams, a dead steenbok, or a whole lamb. I do not think that we ate the wild pigs, but there were plenty of them on the farm.

In the afternoon my grandfather used to put me on his lap and tell me stories about hunting these pigs, and how they ran down into tunnels in the reeds and how he and my father had to belly crawl down the tunnels slowly slowly after the pig. And then ‘whoosh …’ the pig would come careering up the tunnels at full charge and they were in danger.

"... my grandfather used to put me on his lap and tell me stories about hunting these pigs ..."
“… my grandfather used to put me on his lap and tell me stories about hunting these pigs …”

‘Quickly, quickly, shoot it!’ he’d cry and drop back into silence, and I would think how I had nearly lost my grandfather and my father to this terrible wild pig.

He, my father, and my uncles, all hunted a lot. They went to Botswana in a huge caravan, and were gone for many months. Then they would come back and hang biltong on lines up on the ceiling in the kitchen above the Aga stove. ‘Every hunter needs to be a conservationist,’ my grandfather would say, ‘because if you like to hunt you must look after your game and make sure that there is plenty again for next year.’

I used to think that these hunters in my family were very strong and powerful, and never in our household at that time did the womenfolk ever question their authority. Even my mother. The women’s work was to look after the home and the children, and that was the order of things.

My grandmother ... was the head of the house ...
My grandmother … was the head of the house …

My grandmother was the head of the house, she did the ordering and the catering, and that too was the way things were. Once the routine of the house was on the go, my grandmother would work in her garden. She had a little trowel for me, and I remember working busily alongside her. I remember too the smell of lavender and rosemary, and the huge bumble bees that used to hover around my green-lined khaki sunhat.

Once I found a tiny bird, I think that it must have fallen out of one of the finches’ nests. Grandmother and I took it into the house, and we found an old shoe-box. I layered this with dried grass and placed the little bird into it. Granny taught me how to chew white bread into pappy bits, and then hold its beak to my mouth and prize the tiny beak open with my tongue, pushing the bread in. But the little bird died the next day. I don’t remember crying.

Perhaps the rhythm of farm life and the harshness of the environment makes people tougher.

Once my grandfather had the most terrible argument with my grandmother, with the whole house, I do not know what it was about, but I can still feel the atmosphere and the trembly sound. He took himself off to his room, across the coir matting of the big enclosed veranda, up his little stairs where the gabled wing was, and shut the door.

He did not come out for three whole days. I thought he might be dead. Nobody said anything, and when no-one was looking I would climb the stairs and sit quietly, quietly, curled up next to the door to see if I could detect signs of life. The most amazing thing of all was that my grandmother would take him his food. Three times a day she would dish up a plate of food for him, and silently place it outside the door. She didn’t knock, she just went away.

Then, later, the plate was back outside the door, empty.


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