‘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.
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.
‘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, 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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