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.
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.
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.
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