ABOUT ME I

My father had been mining diamonds at Premier Mine, near Cullinan, for three years when he reached a point of no return: the conditions he worked under were extremely dangerous and the accident rate was unacceptably high.

He resigned from his position as Mine Captain there to take up a similar post at Sheba Gold Mine in the Eastern Transvaal. My father recalled his Mine Manager being angry when he handed in his notice, demanding to know why he was giving up his prospects in the diamond industry. My father later wrote in his memoir: I was perfectly honest with him, telling him that if I never saw another diamond in my life, it would not break my heart, also that if I wanted honour and glory, along with a medal, I could have gone to Korea. My mind was made up, I was leaving. I was born in the Premier Mine Hospital two weeks later on 20th May 1951.

My mother was the only patient in the maternity section and so my eldest brother often slipped into the ward during the day to visit her. My maternal grandparents were holidaying in Italy at the time and my father sent them a telegram: IT’S A GIRL!

We moved to Sheba Gold Mine when I was three weeks old. We lived in this corrugated iron and wood house until I left home to attend university in Natal.

It was nothing fancy, as you can see: basically built from wood and corrugated iron on a foundation built of local stone. These red-polished steps (mimicked on the other side) led straight into our living room. The open door your see there is a screen door – very common in those days to keep out mosquitoes especially; we also had screens fitted to our bedroom windows. It was while sitting on these steps that I, in the company of my family, observed Sputnik I on 4th October 1957 with such excitement. Commentary on the radio indoors kept us informed of its progress as we scanned the sky for what would look like an exceptionally large and bright ‘shooting star’ travel across from one horizon to the next.

The far window is where our dining room was. It is there that my father encouraged us to know about a world wider than the small community we lived in. We discussed what he called ‘general knowledge’; he asked for our opinions; he told us about earthquakes and volcanoes; and would talk to us about interesting events he had seen or heard about. That is where I did my homework in primary school and thought hard about what to write in the obligatory thank you letters for cards or gifts from my grandparents.

You might notice a sprig of leaves in the top left hand corner of the picture. This is a glimpse of rambling roses that twisted their way this way and that through wooden lattice-work at the side of a shady veranda that ran the width of the house – providing protection from the sun for the two bedrooms that faced onto it. The house used to get so hot during summer that on some evenings my mother would hose down the corrugated iron roof to bring down the temperature a little. We would sometimes see snakes threading their way through the roses: a fascinating yet fearful sight when we were small. The building at the back was our garage – also constructed of wood and corrugated iron.

My father was also a part-time farmer, with a farm – Dunduff – in the beautiful De Kaap valley stretching out from Barberton.

I think we enjoyed the best of both worlds: able to take advantage of the amenities of the mine such as the primary school, tennis courts, public swimming pool, being able to watch a film in the recreational hall every week, as well as having the freedom to explore the veld on our farm. That is where my life-long interest in nature had its roots.

My senior school years were spent in boarding at the Barberton High School. Those years proved to be important in terms of me developing a sense of independence and forming my own opinions. It was ostensibly a parallel medium school, but with a ratio at the time of one English class to three or four Afrikaans classes, it is not surprising that most subjects were taught in Afrikaans with only a sprinkling of English!

It was with a heavy heart that I left the bosom of my family and the comfortable familiarity of the Lowveld to attend the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg at the start of 1969. Little did I know that I would never return to live within easy visiting distance of my immediate family.

I met my husband while I was a student and ended up living in Natal for about seventeen years. During that time I got to know the Natal Drakensberg very well and bore two sons before we moved to Johannesburg for a brief sojourn.

After that we spent about eight very happy years living in both Mmabatho and Mafikeng in the then independent homeland of Bophuthatswana. Our daughter was born during this time and was in pre-primary when we made a final move to Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape during 1988.

 

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THE SUPPORTING STAKE

“Ben! Ben! Where are you?” Fiona slammed the door of her vehicle and raced across the farmyard, still calling her husband. She found him fixing a tractor in the shed.

“What’s up?” Ben looked up as she ran towards him.

“Ben, the cows …” She paused to catch her breath. “The cows have got out onto the road. They’re everywhere!”

Ben gently placed the carburettor on the workbench and wiped his hands on his already grimy shorts. “Armand!” He picked up the keys of his truck. “Was the gate open?”

“No, I opened it with the remote.” Fiona was still panting from her exertion and the sense of urgency of the situation.

“This could be tricky.” Ben called again, “Armand!” then turned to her. “We’ll need your help – drive down to Land 2 and ask Siseko to bring the men up to the road on the trailer. Then I want you stationed at one end of the cows on the road with your hazard lights on.” He touched her arm lightly, leaving a splodge of oil on her skin.

Armand approached the truck at a jog. “The cattle are out,” he panted.

“I know. Hop in. There must be a hole in the fence.”

Fiona watched the two men drive off in a cloud of dust before she made her way through the maize lands to find Siseko.

It was early evening before Ben joined Fiona on the front veranda of their farm house. He sipped his cold beer appreciatively and reached for a slice of the cheese and bacon quiche Fiona had made. “The fence was cut in two places,” he said as if they had simply paused their conversation.

“Cattle rustlers?”

“There’s been a lot of that further down the valley. I’ve informed the Stock Theft Unit, but there’s not much they can do. We’ve got them all back, fixed the fence and Vuyo has organised a rotation of guards for the night.” He picked up another slice of quiche. “Thanks for your help Fi – your haircut looks nice by the way.”

She felt pleased. “I’m surprised you noticed it in the midst of today’s upheavals. Thank you. I’m going to fetch the fruit salad. Shall I bring you another beer?”

He shook his head. “Fruit salad will be fine. I just want some peace – now who is this?” He broke off to retrieve his cell phone from his trouser pocket.

Fiona returned from the kitchen to find Ben looking angry. “Problem?” she asked tentatively.

“Nic called to say a herd of kudu are being a nuisance among his pumpkins. He wants to shoot the lot.”

“Surely not!”

“Surely yes. Sorry Fiona, but I’m going to help him drive them off.” He left his bowl of fruit salad untouched and disappeared into the gloom.

The following morning Fiona was surprised to see two horsemen approaching the area where she was hanging up the laundry. She squinted up against the sun. “Hello Paul, what brings you here on horseback?”

“Ian and I are doing perimeter fence patrols. I hear your cows were in the main road yesterday.”

“Our fence was cut.”

Paul patted his horse’s neck. “A brazen thing to do in broad daylight. Tell Ben we’re around if you see him. We’re going to ride along the Hanegraaf’s fence. Look after yourself, Fiona. Keep a lookout for strangers in the area.”

Fiona felt inclined to weep as she pegged the towels in a rising wind. Andrew and Taryn would be home from university soon and she didn’t want them to get caught up in the tensions that were becoming an increasingly integral part of farm life.

“Mom, I’m not coming home for the vac. Luke and I want to spend the week visiting the Drakensberg.” Fiona felt disappointment squeeze the breath out of her.

“I don’t think you have told us about Luke,” she responded evenly.

“We just ‘clicked’ at the Spring Ball. Are you okay with this, Mom?”

“Sure. Of course Dad will also be disappointed that you’re not coming home. Have fun my darling and let us know how you are.” Fiona wept into the pillowcases she had been taking to Tarryn’s room.

“Dad, Luke is gutless, yet manipulative. He’s stealing Tarryn’s money too.” Andrew was walking around the farm with his father. “Don’t tell Mom, but Tarryn’s paying for the fuel and accommodation for this jaunt of theirs.”

“Mom? Do you think you could deposit some money into my account?” Fiona was struck by the unusual tremor in her daughter’s voice. “It’s just that we hadn’t bargained for the increase in the price of fuel.”

“Is Luke with you Tarryn?” Fiona’s protection antennae bristled at the sound of raucous laughter and music in the background.

“Yes.”

“Are you in a pub?” Fiona couldn’t make out the muffled sound which seemed to be close to her daughter.

“Yes, but … Mom, I really need the money. Please don’t tell Dad.” It was the slight whine in Tarryn’s voice that put Fiona on high alert. She found out where Tarryn and Luke were overnighting. Glimpsing her menfolk returning from their walk, she spoke with grim determination. “Tarryn, listen to me. I’m coming to fetch you. If I set off now I should reach you by sunrise. Don’t argue and don’t leave until I get there!”

She laid her cards on the table. “She is in trouble, Ben. I just know that.”

“Don’t be daft Fiona. You can’t drive alone through the night!”

“Dad, I think Tarryn needs to come home.” Andrew turned to his mother. “Give me five minutes and I’ll come with you, Mom.” Andrew punched his father’s shoulder and winked at him.

“What are those marks on your arms, Tarryn?” Fiona had been observing her daughter closely while they breakfasted at a roadside padstal. Her hair was limp and her eyes still bore traces of crying.

“Insect bites,” came the mumbled reply.

“Fresh round ones.” Ben pushed up his sister’s sleeve. “More like cigarette burns I’d say.” He looked meaningfully at his mother.

“Well, Luke did try to stop the itching.” Tarryn pulled her sleeve down and clutched at the cuffs of her loose jersey.

“With a cigarette?” Fiona could feel anger coursing through her. Luke had apparently still been sleeping when they had met Tarryn outside the motel before sunrise. “Since when could that be regarded as an anaesthetic?”

They drove home in silence, broken only by the periodic sobbing from Tarryn who was huddled under a blanket on the back seat. “Let’s make a stop in town before we go home, Andrew.” Fiona turned to face her daughter. “We’ll stop at the next picnic site so that you can splash your face and change your top and jersey. I’ll make an appointment with my hairdresser.”

“Mom!”

“I’m not having you arrive home looking the way you are, Tarryn. Dad has enough on his plate without having to worry about the welfare of his daughter.” She patted Tarryn’s knee. “We’ll work something out, perhaps even postpone your return for a few days until you at least look well again.”

Once in town, she gave Andrew a hastily compiled list of groceries to purchase while she waited for Tarryn at the hairdresser. “Oh, and get some burn ointment from the pharmacy too please,” she called after her son.

“Tarryn my love, you look gorgeous.” Ben winked at Andrew over her head. “You got tired of your boyfriend did you?”

Tarryn pulled away. “Dad, he’s not my boyfriend!” Then she hugged her father. “Actually, he’s my big mistake.”

A week later Fiona scanned her e-mails to find the quotation for the milking machines she was expecting. To her surprise there was a message from Tarryn: I don’t think I have ever told you and Dad how much I love you. You guys are the best!

Ben smiled when he read it after locking the workshop door. “She’s lost a fortune to that knucklehead, you know.”

“He burned her because I didn’t deposit the money immediately. I just sensed there was something wrong.”

Ben put his arm around his wife’s shoulders as they walked towards the house. “Farm life is gripping and tense at times. I wouldn’t manage it without you. You are like the stakes that support the tomatoes through each season – only, you are forever.”

 

BOOK REVIEW: THE WALLED GARDEN BY CATHERINE DUNNE

This sensitively written account about the healing of the relationship between a dying mother and her daughter is compelling. Catherine Dunne’s fine-tuned descriptions and imagery draw the reader right into the context and setting of her story:

Listening to the uneven breathing of the frail, elderly woman [her mother] beside her, Beth hoped it wasn’t already too late for her to feel beyond the years of sharp exchanges, the slow foxtrot of anger and disappointment that had kept them at arm’s length from the other, dancing to the same old tunes.

The narrative follows Alice through a series of small strokes that leave her increasingly incapacitated. Reconciliation, she realises, will have to come in the form of writing letters to her daughter while she still has the capacity to do so:

God alone knew how long she had left. Now, she was going to give Him a run for his money.

Her daughter, Beth, finds the letters whilst sitting at her comatose mother’s bedside. It is through them that we learn about the background to their estranged relationship; of sacrifices made; of hurts, disappointments and misunderstandings. There is no sentimental soppiness about these letters. Rather, readers are more likely to identify with aspects of their own relationship with their parents or children: life is not always easy.

Alice concludes that:

It was time she apologised to her daughter for holding on too tight, for making hoops of steel out of bonds of love. Mothers and daughters needed ties that would give a little, would bend and stretch with generosity, not break and unravel at the first tugs of defiance and misunderstanding.

As the narrative unfolds, we learn more about the relationship between Beth and her brother, James. Like her, he has domestic troubles of his own to contend with. For now though their focus remains on their dying mother.

I found this novel to be a quick, satisfying read that has left me with a lot to ponder about in its wake. My paperback edition was published by Picador in 2000.

CHILDHOOD HOLIDAYS

During my childhood, we spent most of our school holidays either at our home on Sheba Gold Mine or on my father’s farm, Dunduff, in the De Kaap Valley near Barberton. There was always plenty to do, so I cannot recall any of us being bored.

Reading has been a life-long favourite past –time for me and school holidays gave me the opportunity to read whenever – and almost wherever – I wanted to. I often kept Mom company in the lounge while she was reading. I have mentioned in other posts that I enjoyed sitting on a branch of either the large lemon tree growing in the mine garden or hidden within a mango tree growing next to the top dam on the farm. Another favourite place to read was in bed before falling asleep.

We had a fairly meagre selection of suitable books at home, but I was able to borrow books both from the small school library and from the even smaller ‘library’ in the mine recreation hall. The latter consisted of two steel cupboards!

The mine public swimming pool was only a short walk from our house. My brothers and I practically lived there during the summer. I also played tennis; as I grew older and more adept at the game, I was frequently drafted to make up a fourth with the adult women whenever they were short of a player. I became a regular player with them during the holidays once I had reached high school.

As we lived on the side of a mountain, it was inevitable that my brothers and I would explore the veld. We loved climbing trees too and I enjoyed swinging on the swing Dad had erected in our mine garden. I have had my share of making mud pies and sneaking into the neighbouring garden for the sheer fun of being in a place we were not allowed to be. We used to watch a film in the mine recreation hall every Friday evening: rather a mixed bag for we were never sure what was to be screened.

Left to my own devices, I was happy to play in the garden, creating fairy glades among the rocks or between the exposed roots of the flamboyant trees (Delonix regia) that grew near the bottom of the garden. I spent hours combing through the gravel on our long driveway looking for large pieces of iron pyrites – also known as fool’s gold – for the sheer fun of finding something pretty.

I loved listening to the radio when I was a teenager; playing cards with my mother; colouring in – and writing. Several exercise books were filled with lists of the songs I heard on the radio; lyrics I had copied down; new words I had come across; titles of the films we had seen; and snatches of stories that even then floated about in my imagination.

Of course there was always a lot to be done during the time we spent on the farm. It wasn’t all work and no play, however, as there was the opportunity to walk around the farm; catch fish; climb trees; eat whatever fruit was in season; make fires; and to watch the cattle. I absolutely loved the braais we had over a weekend once my Dad had relaxed a little and we gathered around the flames and chatted as a family. He could tell the most entertaining stories too.

Me with a cow named Paraffin in 1969.

On very rare occasions, Dad would sacrifice some of his precious leave (and thus time on the farm) to drive us down to Southbroom along the south coast of what was then Natal to visit our maternal grandparents. Granny and Grandpa Donald’s home there was called Stonybrae – a nod to his Scottish origins.

How exciting it always was to see the sea! We spent a lot of time on the beach during those visits: exploring rock pools; swimming; building sand castles; and picking up shells. It was an adventure to walk along the rocky shore until we reached the swimming beach – and very exciting to see ships passing along the horizon.

At the swimming beach we would dive fearlessly into the waves; try out body surfing; laugh when dumped by a wave or our bathing costumes were filled with sand. There was a tidal pool to swim in too. A real treat, usually shortly before we walked home, was being allowed to buy an ice-cream cone: a tickey for one scoop and a sixpence for two scoops. I unfailingly chose green lime ice-cream – still a favourite.

MY FIRST AND ONLY DRIVING LESSON WITH DAD

My brothers were all taught to drive as a matter of course – and well before the legal age for a learner driver! This was easy enough to accomplish on the farm roads. Somehow, I slipped through the net.

It must have been a holiday spent at home during my first year of university when Dad surprised me with an invitation to “drive my truck.” His truck was a GMC pick-up with a powerful throaty engine. To my eye it both looked and felt enormous for I couldn’t really see over the long, broad bonnet very well.

How exciting, I thought, as we walked towards the GMC parked under the shade of the large white mulberry tree growing next to the farmhouse veranda. I got in behind the steering wheel and waited for Dad to settle on the passenger seat – an unusual position for him for Mom couldn’t yet drive. It is significant to mention at this point that seat belts hadn’t yet made their obligatory appearance in vehicles.

Dad sat back with his elbow resting on the open window. I turned the key with the confidence of the ignorant and listened to the roar of the engine under the bonnet. So far, so good.

“Change into first gear, release the clutch and we’ll get going.”

‘Get going’ were the operative words here. I don’t think either of us was prepared for what happened next. I changed from neutral into first gear, let down the hand brake, released the clutch and pressed the accelerator.

No-one had ever shown me how to use an accelerator. It isn’t a pedal easily observed by a passenger either. All I knew was that one pressed one’s foot on the accelerator to get a vehicle moving. And ‘press’ I did – my foot pushed the accelerator to the floor; the engine roared; the truck took off at full speed – doubtless leaping into the air as it did so. Okay, the latter might be a bit of an exaggeration – it certainly felt like it – but I was in no position to tell for I had a major problem to contend with.

Instead of me being able to steer around the curve of the driveway towards the farm road, the powerful take-off I had initiated with my heavy-footedness sent the truck charging ahead at speed – heading straight towards the bulk fuel storage tanks and the engine room of our lighting plant!

The bulk storage tanks are in the background, behind my mother watering the vegetable garden.

You have heard the expression ‘slamming on anchors’. Well, that’s exactly what I did: still gripping the steering wheel with white-knuckled hands, I pushed my left foot down hard on the brake pedal. We lurched to a halt as the engine cut out. Dad almost went through the windscreen, so great was the jolt.

I turned to look at him. My heart seemed to be pumping audibly. His face was ashen. He opened the passenger door and got out in silence – he had not uttered a word. I too got out and surrendered the truck keys in silence as we walked towards the kitchen door together. “I thought you could drive,” he managed in a shaky voice before turning to my mother with “I need a strong cup of tea.”

She put the water on to boil while I washed my face and wondered if my legs would ever stop shaking. “I thought she could drive,” I heard Dad saying. He had sat down heavily on a chair in the dining room, probably unable to make it as far as the front veranda where we usually had tea. His legs might have felt as wobbly as mine did. He went on to explain to Mom that because my brothers could all drive, I would ‘somehow’ have learned too.

The truck remained where it was for several hours before Dad parked it properly. He never offered me another driving lesson.