Somerset West

The red tiles are still warm in the evening sun as we open the wrought-iron gate and climb the stoop steps, entering through the porch door. We are met by charming and attentive waitresses, who seat us at a corner table near a window. I can see the garden from the window, or what remains of the garden. The menu is excellent – an opportunity to try unusual fish, calamari or cobbleyo cooked to perfection. The table cloths are crisp and white, the silver polished, iced water brought with warm crusty bread while we examine the menu. What a treat of a day! I keep wanting to come back to this beautiful land.

 

As I browse the menu I become distracted. I am in a family home. The memories come as snap shots. This room has been extended into the garden. 0n that solid wall there were once French doors that opened onto the veranda. I remember my little sister’s pram sitting there, covered in fine netting to keep away the flies. I once pushed the pram to rock the new baby as she stirred, and it tumbled down the stoop steps. Thankfully she was strapped in and the commotion I caused had no serious consequences. I remember the shame of that moment and the alarm it caused. I remember the tall date palms that once bordered the garden with their clusters of russet-coloured fruit, swaying and whispering in the breeze. They sheltered the garden from the hot sun, and the sunlight filtered through their branches, dappling the stoop with light and moving shadows. There was a fish pond. I could see it from the house through the lattice windows. Peeping through their diamonds I could see the golden carp splashing among the water lilies and sometimes catch a glimpse of a heron come to steal his lunch. I remember the red tiles of the stoop hot on my bare feet and then cool where the shadows fell. In the afternoon I played with my brother David, simple games of hide and seek. We built little dens where our teddies and dolls sat in a row, and ants gathered the remains of our picnic.

 

My parents kept a few hens, and sometimes we discovered a stray egg laid outside their enclosure. What excitement that gave us! I remember the purple bougainvillea that spilled over the white-washed garden walls. I loved the large hydrangea bushes which grew in the garden. When they were wet from a shower of rain the flowers had a faint perfume. I loved to press my face into their generous flowers, and eat the petals when I was very small. There must have been honeysuckle in the garden. I remember its sweet smell in the air. I remember the flaming red hot pokers and the spiky flowers of the protea, flowers indigenous to South Africa. This garden was a paradise to me as a little girl.

 

This was once my family home. The place of my birth. There was a vine trellis in front of the garage where my father parked the Studabaaker. In season the vine was heavy with black grapes. Cape grapes are the sweetest. I remember a large tortoise wandering about the garden. The tortoise was a family pet. He seemed almost to be the same size as myself. I don’t remember if we gave him a name, but the poor thing had had to submit to having a hole drilled in the back of his shell. Someone had attached a little cart to the shell with twine. He trundled about the garden pulling me or David in the cart. There was a mulberry tree in the garden. Hidden in its leaves we discovered silk moth cocoons. The golden threads of the cocoon, when flattened and teased out, made beautiful delicate book marks. We proudly presented these to our parents..

 

I remember my mother in a crisp white overall, bending to pick me up, to cuddle and kiss me. She smelt of ‘Harris Tweed’. Her long legs, when she bent to pick me up, looked elegant in a buttoned court shoe. She was beautiful to me. My Daddy would watch her from the surgery door, as he took a short break from examining teeth. His blue eyes were full of love and pride. He affectionately called me ‘Quikle Dukie’ or ‘Betty Blue’. David he called ‘Tordle Ordle’ and my mother was ‘Fro’. ‘Fro’ is the Afrikaans word for woman – she was his woman.

 

There were family adventures to Cape Point where our car was overrun by baboons, clambering on the car roof and swinging on the aerial. We were safe inside. Dad had an accident on the steep path up to the lighthouse, stumbling with David on his shoulders. David hit his head and my father grazed his knees. I remember my mother’s concern for them both, but they recovered.

 

We lived outdoors, bare-footed and sunburned. There were picnic trips to the beach, and wonderful sandcastles. Daddy would help us decorate them with shells and sea-weed. We loved to pop the bladders of the sea-weed. We explored rock pools and gathered mussels in our pails. My father later used the mussels as bait for fishing. My mother and he would cast lines out to sea from the beach. Family legend had it that Mummy once snagged a great fish, but did not have the strength to bring it to shore, and the line snapped. Next day on the beach we found the carcass of a whale!

 

Dad was also a fresh water fisherman. I remember the excursions to the Steembrass River, the car driving rhythmically over the ‘Clankety Clang’ bridge as we called it. I remember the excitement of catching minnows in our pails, in the shallow waters of the river. The pebbles on the river bed were rounded and smooth under our feet, and the sunlight sparkled on the shallow water. Dad would cast the rod back and forward patiently ’til suddenly he had a fish in play. Out would come the net to catch the slippery silver bodies of the rainbow trout. We were excited with him at the catch, my mother laughing her encouragement as she leaned over the bridge. Andrew, the garden boy, lit a fire and made a make-shift spit to cook the lunch we had caught. My parents employed a garden boy, a maid and a mother’s help. My mother was kind to her employees and they grew to love her. Andrew came to work for our household because he liked the look of the young madam. She had kindness in her laughing, hazel coloured eyes. My father named me Hazel because of my mother’s eyes.

 

As the evening came we would pack up the picnic, dust sand from our feet, take off our swimsuits and put clothes back on again. We would get into the car, which was stuffy from absorbing the heat of the day. The car windows were rolled down and the evening breeze blew in on our faces as we drove the windy road home through the mountain pass. David and I always liked to look out to see if we could spot ‘Granny Smith’. Granny Smith sat knitting by the gate of the orchards of that name on good summer evenings, and the apples are known all over the world for their delicious flavour. It was a good day if we saw Granny Smith. It never occurred to us that ‘Granny Smith was not a real granny but an electronic manikin. We expected her to be sitting in her place by the apple orchard gate, knitting from morning to night, presiding over her estate. When we had sighted Granny Smith we were content and ready for sleep, and we were usually fast asleep by the time we arrived home to Somerset West.

 

My parents were living their dreams. They didn’t question their good fortune in any way, nor the status quo that permitted them the privileges they enjoyed.

 

‘Excuse me, Madam, what would you like to drink? The Cape red is very good from Constantia vineyards’. I am back in the room in Henri’s restaurant. So many memories of childhood, some sweet, some sad. If these walls could speak!

 

 

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