Shakespir Edition 2016
Copyright © 2016 Vincent Gray
This book is a work of fiction. All the characters developed in this novel are fictional creations of the writer’s imagination and are not modelled on any real persons. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead is entirely coincidental.
All rights are reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior permission of the author.
It was another sleepy humid day in December 1961, and we, that is, Zac and me, had been picking tomatoes all day while everyone was travelling down the highway to Durban. It did not seem right that we had to work especially since it was our school holidays. The sun beat down on us as we stooped in the fields between rows of tomato vines fixed to strands of taunt blue steel wire lines that stretched between the boiler tube pipes that dad had got from the East Rand Propriety Mines (ERPM). He got the pipes somehow, a great big pile of heavy hollow metal tubes, he got them for nothing somehow, and we fetched them in our five ton lorry from the south west vertical shaft, we loaded the pipes onto the truck and at the farm we staked them in a neat pile behind the farm machine shed.
And then for hours that ran into days he carefully measured and marked off spaces on all of the pipes, and then he drilled holes through the pipes. The drill never stopped whining until the pile of pipes was done.
And while dad drilled the holes, Judith and I planted tomato seeds in seedling trays.
And while dad and mom planted the steel boiler pipes in long rows in the field, Judith and I watered and cared for the tomato seedlings in the seedling trays, and when we were finished with the tomato seedlings, we cut hay and we cut lucerne, we raked hay and we raked lucerne, we baled hay and we baled lucerne.
And we were finished with cutting, racking and baling, we were back in the mown fields, we decoupled the aluminium irrigation pipes with their attached sprinklers, and moved them down the lucerne field to the next strip of field that needed to be irrigated, we would then recoupled the pipes so the each sprinkler stood upright. After starting the pump I would go back to the fields to check if each sprinkler was working properly.
And when we finished with one job, there was always something else for Zac and me to do on the farm. It did not seem right to be working all day long in our December school holidays.
Dad had to plough night and day before the rains came, and when he had finished harrowing the field, he planted 20 morgens with maize.
Now with the maize planting done, dad and mom spend whole days planting the boiler tube pipes in a fenced-off four morgen sized field of ploughed and harrowed earth that lay bright red in the sun. They managed to finish before the rains came, and the bare field was filled with metal pipes, all the pipes standing upright in neat rows, reminded me of a drive-in movie theatre.
And before the rains came dad spanned strands of steel wire through the holes, and he pulled them when taunt with the wire puller. And then he and mom dug shallow irrigation furrows between the wire spanned rows of pipes. And they piled up the red earth along the rows of pipes.
And just before the rains came we carefully planted thousands of tomato seedlings into the deep red soil into which compost had been mixed. From working in the tomato fields the red earth stained my hands. Zac did not care about the stains on his hands. His hands were tough and strong and calloused from the farm work.
Entombed in vast caverns and in extensive aquifers in the rock beneath the deep red soils of Waterlandsridge was an abundance of underground water. The water table was low. Two of the three boreholes on our farm had windmills which pumped water continuously into raised circular corrugated iron tanks. From the tanks Dad had laid three inch galvanized steel pipes that criss-crossed the farm to all the fields.
Day and night the windmills pumped water into tanks and corrugated iron dams. We called them windmills. I think we should have been calling them wind pumps. We seemed to call a lot of stuff by the wrong names, but then English is such a flexible language. The wind blows and we wind up the alarm clock. A wound is an injury and a bandage is wound round a wound.
We used the natural forces of wind and gravity to irrigate all the vegetable crops which we planted all year round. Only the fields of hay and lucerne were irrigated with sprinklers. A diesel pump was used to supply water under pressure to the sprinklers.
At night dad run the diesel pump for the sprinklers for a few hours, and the next day, Zac and I would move the aluminium pipes and the sprinklers to the next position, and we would repeat the cycle again and again. And the hay would grow, and the lucerne would grow.
And Judith and I would mow, and rack, and bale the hay and the lucerne, and then we would move the sprinklers. And the wind would blow across the lands, and we would hear the blades of wind pumps rotating like the propellers of an aircraft, and the water would gush into to the tanks and the dams.
“I have always wondered,” Judith said, “how sunlight and water made the hay and lucerne grow, it is a mystery to me how plants grow, and the sun bears down on the fields and the fields transpire gallons of moisture into the air. The windmill blades turn in the wind, and the water gushing from the ground flows into the fields, it is like an eternal cycle which never ends. Spring comes and the swallows return, flying low over the fields, dipping over the dam.”
“Powered by wind,” Zac said, “the windmill pump brings water to the fields for free, and with windmills and barbwire the vast Highveld plains were conquered for human habitation and agriculture.”
“With the technology of machines,” Judith said, “the vast silent monotony of the surrounding rolling grassland plains were transformed into a geometric patchwork of different shades of green and red, and the blades of the wind pumps turn in wind which blows across the fields.”
“Look at the swallows,” Judith said, “look at how they skim over the field of lucerne.”
Now it is that time of the season when kestrels perch on the top of telephone posts that line all the main roads like the tar road to Durban, which forms the eastern boundary of our farm. Next to the boundary fence at the far edge of lucerne fields on the top of a tall black coal-tar creosote telephone pole a kestrel roosts. Sometimes the kestrels form flocks, they fly around the steel tower that supports the water reservoir that supplies the farmhouse, the dairy, the watering troughs and all the taps of the farm. Zac climbs up the steel catladder to the top of the tower to observe the kestrels. He sits on the wooden platform that supports the huge galvanized steel reservoir. I would have joined him if I had the courage to climb the catladder.
When the autumn begins to paint its yellows, reds and browns, and when the chill of the evening air settles over the shallow Rietspruit valley and the dry reed beds blaze a fiery red in the dying sun, I find myself yearning for something that is indefinable and indiscernible, that will make me feel contented and fulfilled. I recognize the same searching in Zac’s demeanour. We are silently aware as we ride across the dried-up vlei that the yellow black masked weaver birds, the red bishops and the Sakabula birds are starting to lose their summer plumage as they gather into flocks. A new moon rises behind us as we gallop the horses along the edge of the mown lucerne field. We slow down to a canter. Zac looks happy. The expression on Zac’s faces makes me wonder if life could ever get any better than this. But I feel explicably sad. Gazing up at the autumnal sky shortly before sunset we observe of flocks small birds flying westwards to their roosts, wave after wave, into the setting sun. We can hear the fluttering whirr of their rapid wing beats.
“Winter is long gone,” Judith said, “with Spring now behind us, we are watching the skies for the first rains. The peach blossoms in the orchard have faded into tiny green velvety fruits. A breeze has come up, but there are no clouds in the sky.”
“Winter is now but a distant memory,” Zac said, “I have forgotten how cold it was. See how the wind pump’s boom with its vane sweeps wildly cutting a clean arc through the air, and now see how the gentle breeze creates rippling waves over the fields of hay.”
“Look,” Judith said, “see how the black shouldered kite hovers stationary high over a spot in the hay field, it folds it wings upwards together above its body, it drops noiselessly out of sky with its talons extended.”
“It has caught a field mouse,” Zac said, “see how the mouse hangs from its talons, it wings beating rapidly, its flies off, it flies low across the maize field, it settles on top of the wooden telephone pole. The telephones lines are beginning to sag in the heat. The lines follow the road, they the follow the main road all the way to Durban. The kite has started to tear chunks of flesh from the mouse.”
“Look,” Judith said, “the slender frail looking purple heron with it long thin neck and sharp dagger bill stands motionless next to the barbwire fence at the edge of the lucerne field.”
“The sprinklers are now working,” Zac said, “and on quiet nights when there is a soft breeze blowing towards the tram I can hear the distinct tick, tick, tick sounds of the sprinklers spraying over the lucerne fields.”
“The blades have started to move,” Zac said, “the rotating motion of the eighteen blades of the wind pump begins to exert a powerful torque on the crankshaft mounted on top of the tall steel tower. The gear box and crankshaft converts the rotary motion generated by the revolving blades of the windmill into the up and down reciprocating stroked motion of the long steel rod that reach deep down into earth where the pump cylinder lies mysteriously hidden at the bottom of the bore hole.”
“Look quickly the water has started to flow, it makes a silver arc as it leaves the pipe and splashes into the dam” Judith said, “and dad has now opened the dam’s valve, he turns around, he throws his head back, he shields his eyes against the sun, he is looking up at the rotating blades. He is happy, he is contented, and the water is flowing to the tomato fields.”
Mom is standing in a sun bleached frock. She calls, her voice rings across the field. She has the strong vocal voice of an Italian opera singer. She looks like an Italian peasant with her black doek covering her dark hair. She shouts again to get my attention; she instructs me, she commands me to run quickly, to sprint across the cut lucerne field to open the valve of the pipe that opens into the feeder irrigation furrow at the edge of the field of tomatoes.
I run across the cut lucerne field, I run between the sprinklers, I stride over the aluminium pipes, the sweeping spray of water catches me, I feel the spray of water on my face, arms and now on my back, the spray chases me, I run faster to escape the sprinkler’s spray, as I run I hear and feel the short cut stalks crunching under my shoes.
Zac shouts run Judith, run Judith.
I watch Judith running, striding in her shorts across the cut lucerne field, she runs straight towards the flock of geese grazing on the fresh new shoots sprouting from the crowns of the cut lucerne, the startled flock scatters before her, retreating in panic with wings spread wide. Agitated crowned plovers take noisily to the air, calling kree-kree as they fly across the lucerne field. The dogs sniffing around the dam see her running, they bound with high leaps across the field of hay towards the mown lucerne field, and they leap high to see their way through the thick sward of hay. A brace of quail explode in front of the dogs. Wings whirring rapidly they fly low over the swards of hay, calling pree-pree-pree.
I struggle to turn open the stiff metal valve, the valve turns, and Mom is now walking quickly across the field to meet me. Now we standing together, we wait, watching the outlet of the irrigation pipe. A few minutes later a gentle stream of fresh pristine ice cold borehole water starts to flow out of the pipe into the irrigation furrows. The stream of water flows down the main irrigation furrow along the edge of the tomato field and streams of water begin to flow into each irrigation furrow between the rows. I watch as the stream fronts flow away between the rows of seedlings. Abigail, Catherine and Byron come running over, they start walking bare foot in single file in the irrigation furrow, walking fast now they follow the stream of water down the irrigation furrow. The water drains quickly into the soft friable earth.
Zac kneels down and drinks water flowing from the pipe. He stands up, his knees are caked with moist red soil, and he smacks his lips and grins at us.
Dad strides across the field towards us, his step is confident, his gait is determined, he does not falter.
Now dad joins us and we watch the irrigation furrows between the rows fill up with water. The dogs are panting, they crowd around us licking our hands and wagging their tails.
In the days and weeks that followed, as the seedlings grow, we tie each plant to the wire strands. We train all the plants to grow properly and to hang like vines from the wire strands.
In the days and weeks that followed, the first rains have fallen, and the maize seeds have germinated and row upon row of small green coleoptiles have broken through the surface of the red soil, signalling the start of the maize growing season. Judith did not notice, but I saw when I knelt down, the first small leaf had developed and expanded, then shortly thereafter, the second leaf developed and expanded, and then the third. I was hoping that the maize would get a head start on the weeds, so that after school we would not have to hoe between each maize seedling. Two weeks after the emergence of the first leaflet, dad cleaned the rows between the maize with the mechanical cultivator. And two weeks later he cleaned the rows again with the mechanical cultivator.
And now in the afternoons the rains have started to fall, it rains again and again, and the maize canopy quickly grew closed, and while it rains I lay on my mattress in the tram reading my library books. I read Wuthering Heights, and I read Tess the D Urbervilles, I read while Zac lies on his mattress doing his homework. And the rain came down in sheets and it continues to rain throughout the night. We listen to the rain at night falling on the tram’s roof. And after the rains, above the shaded dark red damp earth, a sea of shiny emerald green leaves now stands a meter high. Under the deep blue cloudless skies the maize leaves shine and sparkle with a metallic sheen in the bright sunlight, and I see that Zac is quietly happy that we did not have to hoe the maize, instead, whenever we have free time on hand, we go horse riding, on most days at dusk we go riding, which is almost everyday, when it is not raining. Because we live on a farm outside the municipal district of Boksburg, Zac and I do not play any sport, we do not participate in any after school extramural activities. We are strangers to our classmates. Sometimes in the expansive solitude of the rolling plains that surround us I feel like a stranger to myself because I have no one to talk to except Zac.
After the rains, dad always sends Zac to visit the rain gauge standing next to the maize field and in a notebook he must record the amount of rain that had fallen in inches. Dad keeps a record of the cumulative rainfall and he can predict how many more inches of rain we still need to get a good yield. While it rains, work does not stop on the farm, dad and mom walk about in the rain wearing rubber wellingtons and cheap plastic rain coats, and the dog always trail behind them. In the rain they milk and feed the cows, and in the rain they feed pigs. We can hear when the pigs are being fed. And when it is wet we can sometimes smell the pigs from the tram. They have to sort out the animals while we do our school homework. Red mud clings to our shoes and we scrape the mud off the soles of our shoes before climbing up the tram stairs.
Now, before they went to the dairy parlour mom asked me to watch over the pot of rice on the gas stove. Everyday it was my job to watch over the food while they milked the cows. With dad’s automation of the dairy parlour with the milking machines it usually takes them just 20 minutes to finish milking the herd and washing down the dairy’s floor and stalls. They both carried the smell of cows and the whiff of manure on their clothes and bodies. And at dinner we all crowd around the small table in the lower deck of the tram, and we say grace before we eat. The sun is setting later each day and we had more hours of daylight. And as we ate our supper we could hear the calls of francolin and guinea fowl. I could hear two kinds of calls coming from the guinea fowl, one goes buck-wheat, buck-wheat and the other goes keet-keet-keet. At dust they call incessantly as they congregate nervously near their roosts in the huge willow trees along the river.
After supper before soaping down I swam naked for a while in the dam as darkness set. Later Judith would go to the dam, carrying a hurricane lamp, to wash and brush her teeth. I didn’t want to strain my eyes in the poor light so I never do much school work or reading after sunset. We have become like birds. We usually sleep shortly after the sun had gone down and wake up before the rising sun. By the time we get up and get dressed Dad and Mom would be finished with the milking, which they do just before dawn while it is still dark.
Large clusters of shiny green tomatoes are now hanging heavily on the vines. At six o’ clock, we realize its dinner time, while walking back to eat, with Dad and Zac, after inspecting the tomatoes fields, the sun is still hanging high above the western horizon. In the south we see silvery white clouds gathering over the Suikerbosrand. The clouds roll over the plains towards us. The sharp platinum light bathing the fields, now softens into a soft golden glow. The diffuse glow spreads over the tomato fields, over the lucerne field and over the maize lands. We quickened our pace to a jog as we hear the approaching rumble of thunder. In the north-west over faraway Vosloorus, lighting has started to flash sharply across the open but fading blue skies. The approaching clouds turned a bright golden colour. Large rain drops begin to fall, and within seconds a heavy rain storm sweeps over the farm as we dash for the shelter. We take refuge under the high flat bed trailer standing at the edge of a field of hay.
As the storm subsides to a light drizzle, swarms of winged termites, alates, begin to fill the sky with their haphazard jerky fluttering motions. In the gathering gloom of dusk low flying swallows, swifts and bats flittered above and around us as we walk back to the tram. Along the road we dodge hopping toads pursuing winged alates that had crash landed onto the ground. Plovers and dikkops run about feeding on alates that had shed their wings and were now scurrying about on the ground in a frantic search for mating partners.
Weeks later, while we picked tomatoes all day long, mother said that she was sure that the heavy herby scent of the tomato vines would attract snakes. Dad laughed and said nonsense. Zac also found it funny that snakes would be attracted by the scent of tomato bush foliage.
Dad said that after lunch we should continue with the picking as he still needed to mow the lucerne before sunset. He also said that Zac and I would have to rake the cut swaths of lucerne tomorrow afternoon while he and mom continued with the tomato picking after they got back from the fresh produce market. Zac and I would then have to bale the raked windrows the very next day before the rains came, while he and mom picked tomatoes. Looking up at the clear blue skies he hoped that the weather would remain clear and that it would be hot and dry enough for baling. He added that Mr Matthews and Son would take all the bales, and we needed the sale, so it would good if it did not rain until we finished the baling, even though the maize lands needed rain.
Mom stood up to stretch her back, and agreed that we needed the sale, Mr Matthews and Son had been our loyal and valued customers for many years. Mr Matthews and Son owned one of the largest of Friesland dairy estates in the district of Waterlandsridge and we needed that sale before Christmas. Zac and I just nodded our heads while our eyes skimmed over the tops of the heavy laden tomato vines; we could see the busy traffic on the main Durban road heading southwards to the sea, towing caravans.
I hate sitting on the hard metallic bobbing cantilevered seat while operating the mechanical rake. Zac drove the tractor, towing the rake with it huge metallic wheels, and it had become my job to sit of the mechanical rake. With my foot resting on the stiff metal pedal I had to operate the pawl and ratchet mechanism for lifting the rake by pushing hard down on the pedal. That is how dad explained the inner working of the mechanical rake; it depended on a very simple, but clever, ratchet and pawl mechanism for the lifting and dumping of the raked lucerne or hay. But to activate that mechanism I had to use every muscle in my leg to push pedal down, and if I did not release the pedal immediately once the mechanism was engaged to lift the rack, the rack bush against the cantilevered seat with an awful sound.
Now at school, our science teacher who had a BSc Honours degree in physics drew a simple machine on the board. He called it the perpetual motion machine. I recognized that it represented a pawl and ratchet device. In my mind’s eye I see Judith operating the pawl and ratchet system of the mechanical like the Maxwell Demon that Mr Simon Swindells spoke about. Mr Swindells set out prove to us that a perpetual motion machine operating in a cycle was impossible. In the drawing a pulley was fixed in the middle of axial. The axial passed through the centre of the pulley. Fixed to one of the axial was an impellor or water paddle with three rectangular blades. Fixed to the other end was the ratchet. Fixed to the pulley was a rope and fixed the end of the rope was weight. Performing a thought experiment Mr Swindells explained why according to the laws of thermodynamics a perpetual motion machine could not work. While towing the rake through the mown hay and lucerne fields I often meditated on Mr Swindell’s thought experiment. He spoke about the laws of thermodynamics making it the dismal science of the physical world. Surprisingly, our accountancy teacher said that the laws of economics made it the dismal science. Entropy increased irreversibly and the iron laws of supply and demand determined of all economic exchanges.
I depressed the stiff metallic pedal with my foot and immediately an awful rattling machine noises of steel started beneath my seat as pawl engaged with the ratchet and the long curved claws of the mechanical fork would rise up from the ground. Often when I lapsed into day dreaming the long curve forks would smash against the underside of my seat. In my reverie I would become slack in releasing the pedal at the right moment, especially if Zac was driving the tractor too fast. If I felt that Zac was going to fast I had shout so that he could hear me above the noise of the tractor and the loud clanging of mechanical rake, I would shout for him to slow down. Once when he was driving too fast, I ruined one of my favourite T-shirts. The fork kept bashing against the seat and in the process it damaged the bottom end of T-shirt which happened to be hanging over the back of the seat.
Now we had been picking tomatoes since sunrise. By midday it had become warm enough for the storks to rise up high, riding in wide circles on the thermals against a deep blue sky. They would quickly descend from high altitudes onto any field of lucerne or hay that had been freshly mowed. They and the cattle egrets would march behind the mower or the mechanical rack picking up insects and larvae. Judith would be operating the mechanical rack, bouncing on the metal seat with a dark scowl on her face. She would complain bitterly. While raking the cut lucerne swaths into windrows, every now and then above the noise of the tractor’s engine I would hear Judith shouting: ‘You are going to fast, slow down.’
Zac and I knew we would be sorting, weighing and packing tomatoes into plastic bags while the mantle of the gas hurricane lamp burnt a bright white in the night as it hissed the moments away. Smacking the mosquitoes biting our arms and legs we always stopped to gaze at the dark starlit moonless heavens. I gazed in wonder at the mysterious and silent Milky Way that stretched across the sky. If we looked long enough at the night sky, it wouldn’t be long before we could make out the lights of an aeroplane tracking its lonely path across the night sky against a background of stars that remained fixed in their position, or we would see a meteorite. Of course I knew that the strictly speaking there was nothing lonely about the path that the aeroplane followed against the night sky. It just looked lonely up there compared to us down here.
Mother said that she was sure that the night fragrance of the tomato vines was attracting the mosquitoes which swarmed around the hissing hurricane lamp, popping loudly like little fire crackers as they exploded when they collided with the burning hot glass of the lamp.
Later that night after we had all sank into a thoughtful silence mother said she wondered why Zelda had shot her baby and then herself while alone on their farm, which was across the main road just behind the Indian trading store. She shot herself and her baby while her husband was working nightshift as a skipper at the ERPM south-east vertical shaft.
We were all shocked when we heard the the awful news. It was just Saturday three weeks ago that I saw her with her baby in a pram at the Indian store and she was laughing. Mother said it was a shame about Zelda and her baby, and it did not seem right. Zac agreed. We all became quiet again, each one lost in their own thoughts as we packed tomatoes. I am beginning to become convinced that farm life can drive any sane person mad. I am convinced that no one is sane on Waterlandsridge. Not every Zac, I think he just hides his madness.
Abigail and Catherine and Byron played all day in the tomato irrigation furrows while we picked, and now whining with the exhaustion after the long day in the field, they have finally fallen asleep. Their clothes, hands, arms and legs are caked with dried red mud. They are filthy. They don’t know any other life, so they will eventually go to bed filthy when we get back to the tram later tonight. Mother has covered them with some hessian sacking so they would not be eaten up alive by the mosquitoes. With our eyes accustomed to the dark, Judith and I started to load the bags of tomatoes into the truck.
When we were finally finished it was just past midnight, Zac and I clambered onto the back of the truck and we stood on the back leaning on our elbows against the cab. Dad carried the sleeping kids to the truck. Mom and three sleeping kids crammed into the cab. Dad drove us back to the tram to sleep. In the headlights we watched a scrub hare darting in front of the truck along the sand track, before it disappeared into the cut lucerne field.
We helped carry the sleeping kids up the narrow spiral staircase to their mattress on the upper tram deck. With their clothes, hands, arms and legs still covered in red mud we lay them down on the mattress fully clothed. Zac and I covered them with a light blanket.
On the upper deck of the old vintage tram we too stretched out our weary and sore bodies on our foam mattresses on the floor and while listening to the frogs croaking and peeping in the reed beds of the Rietspruit we fell into a deep asleep.
Shortly before sunrise mother and dad already milked the cows and now they were ready to leave with the freight of packed tomatoes for the Germiston Fresh Produce Market. I heard the truck being started, it was just after sunrise. Judith and the kids lay undisturbed in a deep slumber. I turned over and fell asleep again. We were so tired that we all slept until the sun started shining on our faces through the curtainless tram windows.
The sun drove us out of our beds. Zac put on his swimming trunks, and plunged into the dam by the willow tree. We all joined him wearing our customes. After our swim in the freezing cold borehole water, we clambered out of the dam and soaped our wet bodies. We washed off the soap with buckets of water from the dam.
After lunch, at midday, Zac and I raked the cut swards of sun dried lucerne, while mom and dad who had returned from the market continued to pick tomatoes while the kids played in the irrigation furrows. From my high perch on top of the mechanical rake I could see the steady stream of cars on the main road, which had not abated since the start of the December school holidays. It seemed like millions of people in the Transvaal were leaving their homes for a Christmas holiday at the sea. Many of the cars were towing caravans. They were all going to Durban and to the South Coast to Amanzimtoti, Scottburgh and Margate. When we took a short break to drink a bit of water, I told Zac that it did not seem right that we had to also cut hay. We had barely finished baling the lucerne. Mom and dad were busy stripping the remaining tomatoes for making tomato chutney, which Zac and I would have to sell door to door. I dreaded that. It was so embarrassing, so humiliating to go and knock on the front doors of complete strangers and ask if they wanted to buy homemade tomato chutney or canned peaches.
From my vantage point on the tractor I could see across the gravel road that our new neighbour, a pensioner who had recently retired from railways, had overstocked his farm with a motley collection of all kinds of cattle. The veld had been cropped clean and the cattle were loosing condition.
The next morning after breakfast mom and dad were already in the field with the three kids picking tomatoes. When I called Judith to get ready so that we could go and bale the lucerne while it was still early Judith pulled her face at the prospect of work. She reluctantly put her book down, got up from her mattress and climbed stiffly down the tram spiral staircase to go and wash at the dam. After breakfast we walked to the machine shed. The bales had to be ready collection by tomorrow morning. I could see us baling until nightfall and possibly into the night if we did not start immediately. We would have bail under the tractor’s spotlight if we did not finish by sunset.
With the baling, Judith would drive the John Deere 720 diesel tractor. Towing the John Deere 14-T baler with the bale trailer also connected in tow, she would while driving slowly, carefully navigate the tractor along the raked windrows while I collected the bales and stacked them on the large flat bed trailer.
By sunset we were finished. We only stopped for a short break. We walked back to the tram and made apricot jam sandwiches which we washed down with mugs of strong tea sweetened with sugar. While driving the tractor Judith’s face was a study of concentration as she drove the tractor up and down the raked windrows. A light summer’s breeze began to blow. I scanned the horizons for clouds. It was going to be a clear day. The blades of the wind pump began rotate and I could hear the reciprocating motion of the long steel rod going up and down, up and down, up and down. The wind blows, the rain falls, the seasons march across the sky, everything is in cyclical motion, back and forth like a swinging pendulum, even at night constellation of stars progress in an arc across the black backdrop only to return again the next day after the sun has set, and I thought that in spite of these inexorable cycles and rhythmic revolutions, in which everything returns to the beginning, we still grow old. In history we learnt about the French revolution and also the Russian revolution. The teacher said that the word ‘revolution’ was an astronomical term, it embodied the idea of a return to the beginning, a return to the origins, to the original. Revolution does not mean change, it does not imply novelty. The word revolution actually implies a return to that state which is not new. It implies a return to that which is original in the sense of ‘as it was in the beginning’ and change and true novelty takes us away from the original in terms of what the primeval state was, which we usually associate with how the state things were in the beginning. But history is about change, it is about moving away from the beginning, it involves a break from cyclic time. In cyclic time there can be no history.
Motion creates the illusion of time. This what she also said, it was strange hearing something like this coming for a history teacher. The illusion of time? How do we know that time has passed? She asked the class. The Bible tells in Ecclesiastes that there is a time for everything, and as season for every activity under the heavens, a time to be born and time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh’ a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
Sometimes Zac comes up with strangest ideas while we are working in the fields. It seems that in the long silences that we endure together under the sun, ideas incubate and are born in his head. He seems to be thinking all the time. And now he is asking me what I think about the nature of time and whether time actually exists. What a strange question. I understand time, I feel the urgency of time passing. Time imposes itself upon us. I feel it. Why would Zac question the existence of time? Can’t he see the passage time all around us, in every passing moment?
Like with the hay raking and baling, Zac and I always seemed to be constantly racing against the sun, trying to finish our chores before the sun finally sets, and closes off the day. When baling hay or lucerne, we gazed at the sky and at the horizon, we keep a watch on the motion of the sun, we are ever watchful for rain clouds, we prayed that it would not rain until we have raked and baled the sun dried lucerne. But I have noticed that the maize was standing high and needed rain and soon we will be picking green mielies to sell at Vosloorus location and at Wadeville Station for two cents cob. Dad and mom always speak ominously about the mortgage on the farm. Our lives seem to hang in the balance of meeting the monthly mortgage payments.
The sun marks out the passage of our day. I want to say that to Zac.
Before supper, as dusk approached, with sun just beginning in sink below the west horizon, see mom and dad would leave the tomato fields with three kids in tow. They are walking together down to the dairy which is near to our farm house that we are now renting to a tenant so as to increase our income streams. They would wave to us as they walk past us.
Zac said something about economics and thermodynamics both being truly the dismal sciences. I laughed as I caught the drift of what he was more or less saying. Our lives seemed to be caught up in the dismal realities of thermodynamics and economics. Most of my friends had mothers that stayed at home and father’s who worked for a salary. They worked at eight to five jobs for wages that are paid at the end of the month. They always take their annual leave over Christmas in December. My friends are now sitting on the beach while Zac and I remain chained to the dismal reality of making sure that the flow of the family farm’s income stream does not ebb. I am actually not sure how wealthy we really are. Our finances are a mystery me. I measure our financial health by the moods of mom and dad. They seem to be in a constant state of bliss so we must be making money. Our lives revolved around making money through the sweat of our brows. That has been our daily reality. We live off the soil, the wind, the rain and the sun. We live in the thrall of nature.
But dad say we are unimaginably more better off that our recent ancestors who were extremely poor peasant farmers in Norway and Italy. Apparently they lived in huts, but we are living in a tram.
The sale of every mielie cob, of every packet of tomatoes, of every jar for tomato chutney or canned fruit, or can of milk, or tub of cream, or dressed rabbit, or fresh farm eggs or bale of lucerne seemed save us from the day of financial reckoning. The prospect of a day of financial reckoning which would be like the Day of Judgment did not seem worry Zac. Zac was incapable of worrying about anything because Zac was blessed with good looks. He did not mind knocking on the doors of strangers. He would smile and they would buy the jar of chutney, because Zac was so handsome and his grin was so charming. The women would flirt with him, their daughters would ogle him. When I spoke about Zac good looks, mom would say that I was also beautiful. But I did not feel convinced. Everyone said I was beautiful, but in the mirror I looked so plain and my face always seemed so sad. I cannot smile spontaneously at the mirror. I stare critically at myself and wish that I was beautiful like mom. I don’t like my Norwegian face and the fact that my nose goes bright red when I have been in the sun too long without my hat. I wish I had skin like a Zac. I hate my pale milky skin.
I was also the one who worried. I was the only one who truly feared the day of financial reckoning. I feared the humiliation of bankruptcy. If we went bankrupt I would die of embarrassment. I would die of shame. I would not be able to face my friends. It would be a something that I would have to keep secret. If we went bankrupt dad would have to go and work on the mines at ERPM and we would have to move into one of those small semi-detached mine houses.
Zac would not be embarrassed or humiliated by our family’s bankruptcy and ruin. He was too good looking and too charming to be humiliated or embarrassed by our family’s financial ruin. The girls were drawn to Zac. They would love him even if he were poor. They would come and visit him at our modest semi detached mine house where he would hold court with all his female admirers.
Tonight after supper, mother has asked me to help her with the making of tomato chutney and canned peaches. I don’t know when I will finally get to bed and we have to get up early for church tomorrow morning. We seem to be in a constant rush to get everything done before Christmas. It didn’t seem fair. You would think the world is going to end tomorrow the way we were rushing to make money. Nothing can be left to wait until tomorrow; everything had to be done now, this moment, straight after breakfast, before lunch or after supper. We seemed to be in a constant crisis of to much to do and too little time. Dad and mom seemed to never get tired; they keep on saying we have to make hay while the sun shines. Zac was always philosophical about everything. He reckons it will not always be like this. Zac comforted himself with his dreams of going to America to become a film maker.
If I could choose what I would become one day I would choose to become a writer. I live to read and to scrawl down notes in my notebooks and to work on my diary. My ambition is to write novels, best sellers, and books that they would make films of. As writer I would like to live in London or in Paris. I don’t share Zac’s dream of going to live in America.
After supper every night while Judith and mom are busy with making tomato chutney and canned peaches, dad sits at the small table in the tiny kitchen in the bottom compartment of the tram. At the other end of the compart they sleep in a single bed divan. Their sleeping quarters are rude and they have no privacy.
At night in the light of a hurricane lamp he works on the journals and ledgers, and in his note book he regularly updates the financial projections for the farm. I help him with the receipts and invoices; I glance at his provision financial statement. We are making money, and we are making a lot of money. We had so many revenue and income streams, this explains why mom and dad are constantly so happy and it also seems to be the reason why they are bursting with so much energy.
Making money seems to make any hardship more tolerable. I want to make pictures. I want to be a film maker. Making money is not my prime motive for wanting to make films. Dad and mom smile indulgently when I tell them I want to be a film maker. They can’t get their heads around the idea of me being a film maker, nor can Judith. But then Judith wants to be writer. Who can make a living as a novelist?
Dad and mom keep on saying that they want us to have proper careers. They want us to go to university. They don’t want us their children to live the backbreaking lives of farmers.
Dad had to let the black farm workers and their families go. He could no longer pay their wages. Across from the tram the white washed and corrugated iron roofed single-roomed sleeping quarters of our farm workers now stand empty. We had to give up living in our house on the farm. Mr Barend Greyling has moved into our house with his young wife and little boy as our tenant. Mr Greyling works as the manager of the Glenroy Cooperative in Rooikraal. We had left most of our furniture in the house for the Greylings and have now moved into the tram which stands in the middle of a peach tree orchard. Mom is also three months pregnant with her 6th child. I feel nothing but perpetual shame. We are living like poor whites and Zac does not seem to be too bothered. I would die of embarrassment if my school friends learnt about how we are now living.
Because nature has blessed Zac with good looks, beautiful teeth, a flawless complexion and a fine body, he does to not need to care care about anything. Zac is popular with the girls at school and because of his physical endowments he has the capacity to make light of everything. All he thinks and talks about now is the transistor radio that mom and dad have promised to buy us for Christmas as a reward for our labours on the farm. My friends have all gone to Durban. At night the distant sound of the holiday traffic on the road to Durban keeps me awake. While everyone was sleeping I knelt on the foam mattress and with my face pressed against the glass tram window I stared at the headlights of the passing cars, fighting back the tears, I struggle not to sob. My life has become so wretched. I cannot help feeling sorry for myself; I wish we were on holiday in Durban or at Amanzimtoti. I wish I was with my friends on the beach.
Sometimes Judith gets moody and irritable, and she then shouts constantly at Abigail and Catherine and Byron. She is fifteen years old and she is actually quite pretty even if she does not think so. We have been living in the tram for a year now. I feel sorry for Judith. She does not have the privacy that she needs. But she has a sharp whiplash of a tongue and can be quite sarcastic if she wants to be.
At dinner time we stopped working in the lucerne fields. She climbed onto the tractor and I drove past the water sprinklers to the machine shed. After parking the tractor we walked back to the tram to eat. Speaking about Zelda’s suicide and all the other tragedies that seemed to visit and cloud the lives of the farmers in the district, Judith concluded that nothing comes to any good at Waterlandsridge.
Zac said I should not be so negative. Every day since we moved into the tram it had become an ordeal for me. Nothing seemed to get Zac down. He baths standing naked in the zinc tub in full view of everyone under the willow tree next to the dam. I turned my head sharply away when I saw his thing and the great bush of black curly hair. It was the same with mom and dad, standing naked in the tub at night; it was so awkward seeing your parents naked under the willow tree while they engaged in some conversation, obviously oblivious of us.
At night when everyone had finished washing I would go by myself down to the dam with my things taking with me a paraffin lamp or a hurricane lamp to bath in cold water. It is creepy to strip off all your clothes and be naked in the dark under the willow tree. In the winter it was really very bad. Mom warmed water in a huge pot and bathed Abigail and Catherine and Byron in the large zinc tub.
Mom and dad are so uneducated. I think I am highly educated. Zac says I must not be so disrespectful. But mom and dad don’t ever read any books other than the Bible and the Sunday newspapers. It bothers me that they have no interest in books. Zac said that because they don’t read any other book but the Bible does not make them stupid. I recognize that. Mom and dad did possess a sharp and an earthy common sense; they had a peasant kind of intelligence, they were incredibly practical, but that does not mean that they were educated. Their conversations were never profound like those of educated people. They were simple humble folk; they were not pompous or pretentious. They had a simple profit and loss approach to life. They perceived everything from an economic perspective. Even though they were simple folk, they had a natural instinct for business. They seemed to thrive constantly on the prospect of making money. They were like Jews, always looking for ways to make more money, always counting money, counting every last cent, forever working out schemes to save money and maximize the efficiency of the family’s labour efforts on the farm. Dad always said that time was money. And not a moment should to be lost when it could be put to good use like mowing lucerne, baling hay, moving irrigation pipes or picking tomatoes. From sunrise to sunset their day’s activities were mapped out. Not a moment was to be wasted. Time and money should never be squandered. Money must always be invested to make more money. It was a sin to waste money on useless stuff. You can only wear one pair of shoes at time and to have more shoes than you would possibly wear was not only a sin, it was a form of madness, it was a waste of money, and it was a sin to waste money on shopping for the sheer sake of shopping.
I read somewhere that money was a Jew’s weapon. Zac laughed when I told him this. But I am beginning to believe that dad and mom have a Jewish kind of relationship to money.
And they also have this blind faith in God, a faith that everything will work out for them in the end. They see the hand of God in everything especially in the flow of income and profit. Everything that was good came from God, the rain that fell, the crops that grew, the milk that flowed from the cow’s udder and the heifer calf that was born. They prayed constantly, always petitioning for God’s blessings or help with respect to some or other farm related matter. They petitioned God that it won’t rain when we were making hay, and then they would ask God for rain after the hay was baled, so that the maize would grow. And then every time the bull mated with a cow that had come on heat they prayed that a heifer would be conceived from the bull’s seed. I could hear them talking and praying at night in the bottom of the tram.
Now that it was holidays there was no youth guild on Friday nights at St Michaels and All Angels. In the holidays I had only Sundays to look forward to in the season of Advent. On Sundays we did not work. Mom and dad only milked the cows, fed the animals, and made cream and skim milk. The dairy had ESKOM electricity for the milking machines, and the cold room where the milk was stored. But the tram had no electricity.
It was a beautiful bright Sunday Advent morning. I got up just before sunrise and sat in my nightie on the top balcony of the tram which overlooked the peach orchard. Mom and dad were still busy with the cows at the dairy. Zac and kids were still fast asleep. The peach trees were heavy with yellow peaches and the beds of strawberries between the peach trees were bejewelled with bright rubies. I felt excited, David, Father Erwin’s son, would be coming back to the farm with us after church, to stay with us on the farm until Christmas Eve. Most of the work was behind. The fields of hay and lucerne had all been mow, raked and baled. We just had to sell the tomato chutney and the canned peaches, I was not looking forward to that.
I have fallen in love with David. From the tram balcony I watched the sun rise and I listened to the birds. At first light a flock of guinea fowl descended onto the cut lucerne fields. I watched them as they pecked away. Abigail always crawled under covers with Zac. She was not going to be the youngest for very long. She knew that a new sister or brother was on the way, and I suppose that is why she clung to Zac who always indulged her. Abigail was his favourite, they had a special brother and sister relationship. I was hoping for a bother. We were already three sisters in our family. A new brother would be nice.
We had to get ready for church. I think we all looked forward to church. It was a welcome break from the week’s routine on the farm. On Monday we will be picking peaches and strawberries. David will be helping. Dad was worried about the Highveld hail but the weather was holding out. Dad was always extolling the goodness of God. He and mom had an earthly Anglican piety. Even though I sang in the choir I was not very religious or pious. I did not share in their earthly Anglican piety, nor did Judith. Going to church was a natural habit of our family. It was a family custom, it was integral part of the burden of culture that been laid on our shoulders by the weight of the traditions that we had inherited from our forefathers. Being Anglican was not an onerous religious task. The yoke of Anglicanism seemed light enough for me and I always found myself enjoying the services. I scooped hot water into the big enamel jag from the big pot of boiling water and walked with my razor and tooth brush to the zinc dam by the willow tree.
This morning I put on a flowing black dress that covered my ankles. I put on some of mom’s lipstick. I felt famished but we never ate breakfast before Mass on a Sunday. David would join us after Mass. While Abigail and Catherine and Byron where at Sunday school we will go in the VW Beetle and park at Boksburg Lake. Mom and dad, sitting in the car will read the Sunday Times and the Sunday Express. David and I will take a walk around the Lake. I hope that Zac does not join us. It would be better if he stayed with mom and dad and read the Sunday papers. I want to be alone with David. Zac’s presence can be overwhelming. We will become his shadows if he walks with us around the lake.
Now we are in the church. I am looking around expectantly for David. The servers are busy at the altar lighting the candles. Zac has disappeared to join the procession assembled outside the church. I can him speaking and laughing outside. His voice travels, it is rich and confident. Everyone loves Zac. Mom and dad smile as they listen to Zac’s voice. His brown eyes will be filled with humour. Zac is dark like mother. The rest of us are blonde and blue eyed. Dad says our ancestry is Nordic. Sometime he jokes that we are Aryan. I don’t want be Aryan. I shudder at the thought. I hate being so fair. I wish I was dark like Zac. I see David. He has seen us. He is coming over to sit next to me. I feel exulted, I feel jubilation. David is smiling. David is shy and awkward like me. But we feel comfortable in each other’s presence. I think we are drawn to each other. Anyway that is my hope. I think David is good looking. He has a pleasant face and a pleasant manner.
Now the bell rings, and the first strains of the organ music for the introit hymn filters through the church. We stand. I share the hymn book with David. Our hands touch while we both hold the hymnal. I am happy again. Later this morning Zac and I will teach David how to ride a horse. Tomorrow David and I will work together, side by side, picking strawberries. Mom will prepare whipped jersey cow cream; we will eat strawberries and cream for lunch in the shade of a peach tree, we also eat firm, crunchy sweet yellow peaches which will make our mouths feel like heaven. There will be a sweet peach fragrant on our breaths when we speak. Mom will prepare a flask of hot sweet tea. We will sip our tea in the shade of a peach tree. I will forget that we live in a two decker vintage tram in the middle of a peach tree orchard. I will forget that we have no bathroom or inside toilet. I will forget that we use the long drop toilet of the farmworkers, a rude wooden structure that is hidden in among tall fir trees on the boundary fence.
When get back from church, Zac will discreetly kill, pluck and gut a chicken for lunch. David will not be able to eat a chicken if he has seen it being slaughtered. I have asked Zac to be discreet and pluck the chicken while I go and show David the horses. Zac thinks it is a big joke that David may be squeamish. It is Zac’s job to slaughter fowls and sheep, and kill pigs with a hammer blow to the head. With David around I feel ashamed that we kill fowls and farm animals and consume their flesh. David will have to wash and do his toilet at the dam under the willow tree. I am praying that David will experience staying on the farm as an enjoyable adventure.
Dad has promised that he will build a shower and construct a coal-fired donkey so that we can have hot showers before the chill of autumn arrives. Dad has promised that he will organize an ESKOM electricity connection for the tram, as soon as we have spare cash, so that we can have lights and a stove and a fridge, and not be dependent on gas for everything. But knowing dad he will delay the ESKOM electricity connection for as long as possible in order to save money. He will say we have managed quite well without electricity, and it has been a huge financial saving for the farm.
Now we store all the perishables in the cold room at the dairy. I will take David to the cold room. I will dip the stainless steel ladle into the milk container and let him drink fresh milk from the ladle.
After lunch we walk back to the stables. Zac will join us soon. I hope we don’t see Suzette. I don’t feel like speaking to her, and once she starts talking she doesn’t know when to stop.
Mr Greyling bought his wife Suzette a horse. She asked me to teach her to ride. In the afternoons after school before the start of the summer school holidays I used to give her riding lessons. Judith was always present. She does not trust Mrs Greyling. She felt that Mrs Greyling was too flirtatious. There is not doubt that the lonely 22 year old Suzette was an attractive woman with a very fine figure. Her little boy stands barefoot by the paddock fence watching his mother ride her horse as it trots in circle on the lunge. Judith sits on the top bar of the paddock fence giving advice to Suzette as she bobs up and down awkwardly in the saddle. Judith is protecting me. She was convinced that Suzette wants to seduce me. I laughed. Judith reckoned that Mr Greyling who was in his forties had rescued Suzette from a life that had no prospects. Stanley my friend at school was so interested in my stories about Suzette that he came over to the farm on his moped after school, travelling 11 miles so that he could check Mrs Greyling out. He was serious about volunteering to bang Suzette. He stood at the paddock fence, lustfully watching Suzette cantering her horse in the paddock, hoping that she would invite him into the stable so that he could mount her. Judith thought that Stanley was a disgusting creep, as he stood leering at Suzette. Anyway dad eventually intervened and advised that it would be best for all of us if we stayed clear of Mrs Greyling.
I could see that Mrs Greyling wanted to be mounted by Stanley. She never stopped smiling at him and he kept on smiling back her. It was obvious what was on both of their minds. To be ‘mounted’ was the word that Zac used to describe the sex act between animals or humans. Zac was not a prude. He could actually be quite disgusting when he used his own farm brand of vulgar language to describe sexual acts. Anyway, she called out to Zac to let Stanley have a horse so they could go riding together down at the river. I was horrified when Zac obliged, after Stanley practically begged Zac on his knees to let him take one of our horses. Zac later told me that Stanley had ‘mounted’ Mrs Greyling and they had ‘copulated’ until they were exhausted from their lovemaking under the huge willow tree where the guinea fowl roosted at night. I couldn’t believe it. It was shocking. How could she? And how could Stanley?
After our ride we turned the horses loose into the freshly mown field of lucerne and we walked back to the tram. David’s face is flushed with excitement from our horse ride excursion. Thankfully Zac has now left us alone and we are sitting on comfortable cushions that I placed on the wooded seats on tram balcony. Mom and dad are catching up on sleep downstairs before setting off for evening song. The sun is still high the day ahead seems endless.
Zac calls the dogs and they set off to the river for a walk. He can never sit still for long; he had to be doing something. Our eyes silently follow him until he disappears down the embankment. It was a relief to be finally alone with David without Zac hovering around. Everyone loves Zac, especially Mrs Greyling. Zac lives a charmed life, and that is in spite of everything. People have always been drawn to him; even David would have left me to be with Zac, if Zac had invited him along, he would have gone with Zac. Zac just had to look at the dogs and their tails wagged expectantly.
David and Judith have volunteered to keep an eye on the kids while dad and mom sleep. A year has come and gone since Zelda’s brother Gerard was killed on the Rietspruit bridge. He was struck by a car while riding his bicycle across the bridge in a freak motor accident. How much tragedy could a single family suffer in such a short space of time? Maybe mother was right when she said that nothing comes to any good at Waterlandsridge. Somehow the collapsing of a giant willow tree across the river was a symbol of this. Anyway the collapsed tree now functions as a living and natural bridge, so some kind of good has come from the accidental falling over of this giant tree. Ever since it fell we have been using it get across the river. From the sides of the massive prostrate trunk thick branches rose up vertically providing natural holdfasts for balancing while walking along the tree trunk that lay high above the flowing stream beneath. It had also become our favourite swimming and fishing spot. The river channel beneath was deep enough for diving from the horizontal tree trunk. On the other side of the river lay wide stretch of unploughable heavy and sticky black turf veld. On the other side of river in the turf veld lay an interrupted string of stagnant oxbow lakes filled with beds of tall reeds. During the summer rainy season the low-lying turf veld becomes flooded and transformed into a temporary marshland. The water of the temporary becomes deep enough for me to paddle about in my canoe.
Many species of waterfowl invade the marshland and become temporary residents. Regular visitors and breeding pairs include spur-wing goose, Egyptian goose, knob-billed duck, cape shoveler, black duck, yellow-billed duck, red-billed teal, white-face and fulvous whistling duck, red-eyed and porchard.
Along the shoreline of the marsh blacksmith plovers call out in alarm when the dogs bound splashing through the shallow water. Once the dogs flushed a marsh mongoose and baying in full cry the pack chased after it. The mongoose managed to scramble up a small willow tree. It clung to the swaying branches at the top of the tree. Its unsettling ragged barking exploded across the marshland
A tall hawthorn hedge forms an impenetrable barrier on the far side of the grassland which borders the marshland. The Koos de la Rey Dairy lay hidden from sight behind hawthorn hedge. Except for their daughter Wilna, who was born late in their lives, all the other de la Rey children have grown up and left the family farm. For sometime now Wilna and I have had some kind of thing going on between us. I first meet her when I went riding on the gravel road with ran past their farm. She was herself a keen horsewoman. She had a piebald mare. She was a border at the Hoër Volkskool in Heidelberg. We bumped into each other a few time while riding, and after starting a friendship we began riding regularly together during the school holidays and on Sundays. She said her parents wanted to meet me, so she invited me one afternoon to have coffee at her home. I was aware that our family the Swenhaugens were well known in the district, and her parents received me into their home as an honoured guest. It was totally unexpected and I think it was due more to their loneliness than anything else.
It seems that Zac has a girlfriend on the farm across the river. I am sure that is where he is going now. About a year ago or so while we were still staying in the farmhouse she phoned. I picked up the phone and she said that she wanted to speak to Zacharias Swenhaugen. She was referring to him as Zacharias, it sounded so funny, no one calls him Zacharias. It was the same day that that David’s dad had brought David to the farm to choose a baby rabbit. I will never forget that day. Zac’s had managed to tame a pair of wild crows by feeding them with bits of raw meat. The crows made the tram their home. We asked Zac to call the crows. The crows flew straight from the tram’s upper balcony to the kitchen door and tried to sit on David’s dad bald head.
But going to back Zac that is how it has always been with him. Girls have always phoned him. He does something to them. Believe me, he is not consciously or intentionally a charmer or Casanova, he just has this natural animal magnetism which girls find difficult to resist, he does not even know or realize what he is doing to them, his effect on them is unpremeditated. He just has this natural charisma. It is in his genes. He is a person without a care in the world. Good things just happen to him and nothing gets him down. Somethings I think that he is emotionally retarded. Anyway it was going to be her birthday, and her birthday was at an awkward time, it was in the first week of the December holiday, so the poor girl never really ever had a proper birthday party. She told him it was her birthday next Saturday and would he like to go with her to see Ben Hur at the The Union in Heidelberg. I didn’t even know that there was bioscope in Heidelberg. But we later learnt that the bioscope was owned by some Syrian.
They fetched him on the Saturday evening and dropped them off at The Union and then fetched them afterwards. Everyone thought it was so sweet? They seemed to be very wealthy. Her father drove a new Mercedes Benz.
From the veranda I saw the white Mercedes Benz of de la Reys slowing down on the main Durban road as they approached the gate to our farm. The gate was open. The Mercedes Benz turned left at our gate. He drove slowly over the steel cattle crossing grating. I watched the car approach as they drove down the long sand track between the tall poplar trees. I called out to Zac that the de la Reys had arrived as their car stopped by the stairs of the front veranda. They climbed out of the car and stood at the bottom of the stairs. I was struck by the poignancy of the scene. Her smartly dressed parents were in their late fifties. Wilna was dressed in a red dress, she wore stocking and a black high heels. She had long thick black hair. Her skin tone was of a dark olive tone like her fathers. Her eyes were dark and her high cheeks bones had a natural red hue. She had such an exotic appearance that she could have been mistaken for a dark Spanish flamenco dancer. Our dogs crowded round them barking and their tail wagging. Dad called the dogs off. Mom came down the passage wearing an ousie’s doek and apron. Standing before the smartly dressed de la Rey family I felt a bit ashamed. Mom and dad looked like peasants. Mom was burnt dark from the sun. She could have been mistaken for a Coloured with her doek. Her skin tone was darker that the de la Reys.
Dad, a blond Nordic giant towered over the de la Reys. He shook Mr de la Rey’s hand. Wilna looked up and began to smile broadly. Zac looking very debonair, dressed in a dark suit, polished black shoes, white shirt and a shiny black tie, appeared on the veranda at the top of the stairs.
They called him by his full name, and after shaking Mr de la Rey’s hand Zacharias Swenhaugen stood confidently before Wilna and presented her with a box wrapped in silver wrapping paper. Wishing her happy birthday he kissed her on her cheek. The box contained a clay model of her horse which he had sculptured, glazed black and white, and fired. It was obvious that Mr and Mrs de la Rey’s had grown very fond of Zacharias, and I even imagined that they were viewing him as a potential son in law.
Wilna looked dramatically and elusively beautiful. After the short exchange of pleasantries between our families I climbed into the back seat and sat next to her. They tried to make small talk as we drove to Heidelberg. We spoke only in Afrikaans. I thought that we would all be going to see the show together. Her parents were strict and old fashioned, and I supposed that to keep up appearances, they would have felt obliged to chaperon us on their daughter’s first date. So it came as surprise when they dropped us off in front of Heidelberg’s old Union Bioscope and said they would fetch us at 11.30 pm. We stood awkwardly together on the pavement outside the bioscope waving as her parents drove off leaving us alone on their daughter’s birthday. It was our first date. Both of us had never gone out before alone with the opposite sex too see movie. We stood for a while coming to grips with the novelty of the moment in which we had suddenly found ourselves.
Wilna took the tickets out of her handbag and we went into the Union. We had quite good seats towards the back of the theatre. At the start of the film I took her hand. We held hands until the end of show and only let go of each others hand when we walked out onto the pavement outside the entrance of the bioscope. I felt that she wanted me to kiss her, so during the intermission we kissed each other for the first time. Outside her parents were already waiting for us.
That was her birthday; we were now both sixteen years old and we were both in standard nine. We sat close to each each other on the back seat on the drive home from Heidelberg.
Wilna now comes home every weekend and we began to go regularly to the Union in Heidelberg. On Sundays afternoons after Church we would go riding together and I was regularly invited to join them for Sunday lunch. When not riding we went on long walks down to the river with the dogs. It was after we had moved into the tram that Wilna became increasing sickly. She felt constantly tired and seemed to be suffering from a persistent flu. She saw several doctors and had a whole battery of tests. A few weeks after getting her results she eventually found the courage to inform me that she had been diagnosed with an incurable leukaemia. She said that we should go for a walk outside; she needed to feel the sun as it felt so cold in the house. Standing in the middle of the open field of unploughable black clay turf land she said: ‘I am going to die.’ A light breeze was blowing her dress billowed. She explained that she did not know how long she still had to live. It would not be much more than 6 months the specialist had told her and her parents. After saying that, she began to wonder how she was going to pass her standard nine exams in November, because she had missed some much school.
We had being seeing each other on weekends for most of the year and it seemed that we were going steady in a tacit sort of manner.
The November schools exams plus the recent demands of the farm had begun to take its toll on our lives and also with the moving into the tram I could not see Wilna as frequently as I wished. I would break away whenever the opportunity allowed and go visit Wilna. There was enough trouble doing the rounds so I decided not tell anyone about Wilna’s illness. What with Zelda’s suicide and our own troubles, who needs to receive an additional burden of bad news? I couldn’t tell Judith that Wilna was dying, anyway not yet, she is happy with David being around. I have not seen her so happy for a long time. I will tell her when the time is right. If she heard more bad news now she would not be able to anything.
Just before dinner we saw Zac returning. He must have crossed the river along the tree trunk because shortly after he disappeared from sight the dogs returned to the tram without him. His brow was creased. He seemed to be deep in thought. When he saw us still sitting on the balcony he flashed a broad smile. But I knew something was wrong.
Just before mother called us for dinner while was alone for moment with Zac I asked him what was wrong. He said nothing was wrong. I told him, you have to tell me. I know something is terribly bad; you can’t hide anything from me. Tell me I am your sister.
I told Judith without disclosing everything that Wilna has not been feeling well lately.
But then Uncle Patrick dad’s youngest brother arrived on his motor bike. It was a welcome interruption and Judith distracted by his arrival did not pursue the matter any further. Dad had already told us that Uncle Patrick was jobless as usual, and that he would be staying for a while with us. We all loved Uncle Patrick. He was wild and reckless. He said that he had come to help us on the farm. We told he could help pick strawberries and peaches. Dad was sceptical about whether Uncle Patrick would really help out. He did take not Uncle Patrick seriously when it came to hard manual labour. Dad said he was a ducktail or a beatnik.
Mother called. Dinner was ready. She had cooked her special Norwegian rabbit pie especially for our guests David and Uncle Patrick. Mom and dad were not staying for supper, they had already milked the cows, they were now dressed for evening song and were ready to depart immediately for Boksburg. They had to also deliver the slaughtered and dressed rabbit carcasses to our rabbit meat customers. Judith and David quickly set the table that stood under a huge plum tree next to the back entrance of the bottom compartment of the tram.
Dad told Zac to put up the coloured lights in the plum tree next to the tram. Zac fetched the ladder from the tool shed. After stringing up the cable for the lights, he put in the coloured light bulbs and connected the cable to the terminals of a 12 volt car battery.
With the coloured lights up and burning brightly the Christmas feeling had finally arrived. And Uncle Patrick’s presence ignited a mood of joie de vivre in all of us. With Christmas barely seven days away, the Christmas spirit had finally begun to feel palpable for the first time since the start of the December school holidays. We all sat down at the table under the plum tree which was also heavy with fruit. Even Abigail and Catherine and Byron had begun to feel the festive mood of Christmas. Even nature seemed to ready to join in our festivities which promised to border on the carnival as the sun finally set. As darkness settled we lit the paraffin and hurricane lamps which we hung up in the plum tree above us.
After supper David and I made coffee for everyone. Uncle Patrick regaled us with stories of the ducktail underworld in Malvern. Moths and beetles swarmed around the hurricane lamp.
I pursed my lips and David pushed a strawberry into my mouth, and then I pushed a strawberry into his mouth. We kissed, our mouths tasted of strawberries and our breath was filled with the sweet fragrance of yellow peaches. Yesterday we had been sorting the peaches into crates for the market. The orchard was steadily been stripped of all its fruit.
A strong wind began to blow. We could smell the coming rain. Zac quickly took the lights down. Soon the night sky was lit up with flashes of lightning. Large drops of rain began to fall just as mom and dad got back from church. And then the storm broke and the rain began to fall in sheets. With wind, thunder and driving sheets of rain it felt as the tram was going to finally disintegrate as the windows rattled and the whole structure shook under the force of the storm. For a moment it felt if the tram was going to topple over onto its side. It rained the entire night. Early next morning from the top of the tram we saw at first light that the Rietspruit River was in full flood and had burst its banks and transformed the low lying turf veld into a vast lake. It was a miracle that we survived the night in the tram.
I knew that there was dark cloud over his visit to Wilna. Her birthday had come and gone. We had been so busy saving the farm, saving our livelihood that nothing else in the world really mattered anymore. Even the full impact of the shocking news of Zelda’s suicide had been received by us with a certain amount of numbness. But even so I was not now ready for more bad news. I wanted to feel happy and carefree for a change, and if Wilna was ill, I wanted her to get better as soon as possible, so that things would be normal again for all of us. I wanted to enjoy the festive mood around the table tonight. My ears were no longer tuned to hear the drone of traffic transporting Transvaal holiday makers to the beaches of Natal while we remained chained to the farm. David was also having a wonderful time. He made me feel that it was not so bad living in the tram under such rude and primitive conditions; it was actually like having an adventure. It felt like my whole life had become an adventure, what with us living in the tram and working in the fields. David kept on saying that our lives on the farm was amazing. It felt wonderful to hear that. It made me feel instantly confident about everything. Maybe our lives were not so bad after all. Well I could see he had a point. The way we lived in the tram and so on was pretty unusual by any standards. But even so I sure missed having a civilized toilet, a working kitchen, a lounge, a bathroom and my own bedroom. Now I look at the deserted living quarters of our farm labourers whom we had to let go. We are not quite living like them, but it must be coming pretty close, close enough to get a feeling of what it must have been like for them. The other day I wondered into their empty dwelling spaces. It was pretty stark and shocking, worse than the shelters that were provided for animals on the farm. How on earth did they manage as human beings to live under such appalling conditions?
When I spoke to Zac about it, he just shrugged his shoulders, and said that he knows that it was bad for any human to live under the conditions that they had to live under. When I spoke to dad about the shocking conditions under which our farm labourers had to live, he said that his great grandfather lived under worse conditions in Norway. They were peasant farmers who were as poor as dormice in a church. And he said that mother’s grandparents who came from Italy had also lived like peasants, just like the blacks on the farms. When I spoke about conditions under which blacks live on the farms, mom was completely unperturbed, she said that in Europe there are white people who live like blacks, so its not only blacks who are suffering in the world. And this was all she would say. Mom was dark and beautiful, a real Mediterranean woman. Zac once said in jest that mom has a North African touch of the tar brush. I looked at Zac and said: ‘you also have a touch of the tar brush, and so does Wilna.’ He mentioned sometime about Mendelian segregation and recombination of chromosomes, and phenotypic ratios before shrugging his shoulders and walking off. Apparently the genes for blond hair and blue eyes were dominant in our family bloodline.
Every night after supper Zac puts on his duffle jacket over his jersey and sets off into the frosty night to visit Wilna who has become stricken with leukaemia. In the silvery moon lit night from the top deck of the tram I peer through the tram window, I can see him walking across the cropped lucerne field towards the Rietspruit. I watch him for a while. I see that the flock of sheep that we had turned out onto the dormant lucerne fields become skittish as he approaches. The sleeping grey mounds huddled together have been awakened, they begin to stir, as he draws nearer, suddenly in unison they all jump onto their feet, standing quietly they watch him as he walks past. I see a hare bounding in front of him.
It is icy cold in the tram. I sleep with a jersey on, I sleep with my gown on, and I sleep with my woollen gloves on. It is so cold that you can’t do anything at night except fall sleep under a pile of blankets. The cold makes one sleepy.
The window begins mist up with the condensation from my breath. I climb back into my bed covering myself with the blankets. I blow out the lamp. Shafts of cold moonlight fill the tram. We have not bothered with curtains since we moved into the tram. I take off my glove and tuned my transistor onto LM radio. I placed the ice cold radio on the pillow near my ear.
It was now our second winter in the tram.
The tram which had become our home for the past 18 months was on the farm when it was purchased by my parents in 1951. It was manufactured by The English Electric Company Ltd London and had probably seen about 20 years service on the streets of Johannesburg before it ended up on our farm. Its design was of a typical British Dick Kerr Type tram from the late 1920s. It must have originally arrived by ship from Britain long before the Second World War. The tram with it steel wheels had been mounted on rails and now stood in the middle of a yellow peach orchard. It must have come to the farm in the early 1950s. I learnt that tram transport had finally ended last year in Johannesburg in March 1961.
This same tram in which we now live must have carried countless passengers along the network of trams lines that used to criss-cross the suburbs and city of Johannesburg.
As I listened to Roy Orbison’s Sweet Dreams Baby I begin to cry. The forlorn image of Zac walking into the cold night to see Wilna who was dying of leukaemia made me feel so unbearably sad. I have always feared dying and I am not scared to admit this, I fear getting leukaemia. I think of Wilna and wondered what could possibly be going through Wilna’s mind knowing that she was going die from leukaemia. What was it like to know with certainty that you were going to die from an incurable illness? Zac says that she is experiencing incredible pain. Her father gives her morphine injections for the pain. It didn’t seem right that she got leukaemia and has to suffer so much pain. It didn’t seem fair. I feel overcome with grief and sorrow for Wilna. Only sleep can rescue me from this unbearable sorrow that aches in my chest. Tomorrow I know I will wake up with a heavy heart. It does not seem that any good ever comes to Waterlandsridge. A sudden strong gust of wind makes the tram shudder and creak.
There was a magical quality to the radiant frosty luminosity of this deep winter’s night that held the plains of the Highveld in its icy grip. Judith’s was watching my progress to the river. I could see her silhouette against the faint soft diffuse golden glow coming from the flickering flame of the burning wick of the paraffin lamp that she had trimmed.
They had moved a comfortable arm chair into Wilna’s room. Her face has become deathly pallid. Her pain which she had to endure for so long was becoming increasingly unbearable. She was finding it impossible to get by without morphine. She said that she had managed to read comforting passages from Die Evangelie van Johannes . It was pleasantly warm in her room. The bedside lamp was on and the main light had been switched off. She asked what I had been up to. She managed to smile when I told her: *ons is nog besig om mielies to stroop*. (We still busy harvesting maize.)
We must have both have fallen asleep. I don’t even remember falling asleep. When I wake up I found that Mrs de la Rey had covered me with a blanket. Wilna is still sleeping. I glanced at my watch it was one o’ clock in the morning. I am not sure what to do. I get up and bend over Wilna, she is sleeping peacefully. I kneel by her bedside and stare at her face. I stand up by her bedside. I don’t want to disturb her peaceful sleep. I am unsure what to do. Her bedroom door is open. I walk out the room into the dark hallway. The old wooden hallway floor boards creaks under my tread. I hear something. It is Mrs de la Rey, she has heard me in the hallway and she is getting up, her bedroom door opens and she appears in the hallway in her gown. She sees me standing in the hallway outside Wilna’s room. She comes over to me. We stand there, speaking in hushed tones she tells me that I should sleep in one of their spare rooms or I could sleep on the settee in the lounge. I insist gently that I have to go. Mr de la Rey also wearing his gown comes into the hallway. We stand together in the dark hallway, we speak in whispers. Their faces are extremely grave. We are filled with uncertainty. Mr de la Rey offers to drive me back. I tell me it is not necessary. He insists, but I tell him I need to walk. It is apparent that we are all experiencing a huge heaviness. We see it in each others faces.
in the evening after supper.
Walking back to the river the full moon looks cold and indifferent. The moon lit landscape has become white with frost. But it was still a beautiful night. Wilna had a huge collection of seven singles. On Saturday nights her parent’s left us alone in the lounge and we listened to the Shirelles’ ‘Baby’s it you’ and ‘Will you still love me tomorrow’ and ‘Dedicated to the one I love’. And we also listened to Pat Boone’s ‘Speedy Gonzales’ and Chubby Checker’s ‘Lets twist again’. And then was Ray Charles’s ‘Hit the road Jack’, and Ben King’s ‘Stand by me’ and ‘Spanish Harlem’.
Wasn’t it just a week ago that we sat in the lounge playing her 7 singles and after we listened to ‘Stand by me’, and she began to weep. I put my arm around her and held her close. We listened to Elvis, we both loved Elvis, we listened to ‘Kiss me quick’, we smooched briefly even though she was sick while listening to ‘Kiss me quick’, while her parents slept, and while we were alone in the lounge.
Now standing is a moon lit icy landscape, for the first time in my life I begin to reflect on mortality and death. Death was not only a dark unwelcome threat that we all naturally feared and dreaded, death was also the ultimate refuge from intense and unbearable pain. In death we are released from the extreme suffering and pain which makes living something that is impossible to endure. Maybe Zelda could no longer endure the pain of living. Like Zelda, I felt that Wilna had given herself over to death. By reading the Gospel of John she has found a way to reconcile herself to the reality that she going die. She has found personal comfort in the face of death. Because we are mortal we do not have to endure pain and suffering for all eternity like Prometheus, bound to a rock by Zeus, and tortured.
The grey skies are filled with a dark foreboding which is so stark, that I can only fear the worst. And now Zac stops, he pauses between twisting the cobs from the dry stalks, he stands rooted to one spot, his hessian bag half filled with maize cobs rests on the ground, and he stares at nothing in silence. Everything seems so grim this morning.
I look at Zac. His drawn face is filled with angst. From lack of sleep dark shadows have formed beneath his eyes. As we move through maize field guinea fowl and francolin explode with frightful panic into the air about us, they do not hear our approach, the noise of dry brittle leaves rustling in the icy wind, masks our passage as we move between the rows of dried maize stalks plucking each cob with a sharp twist, the bag has become too heavy to lift, so I drag it along the ground behind me.
Zac lifts my bag effortlessly; he empties the bag of cobs on top of the growing pile on the trailer. Mom has arrived; she parks the VW Beetle behind the trailer. She does not smile, her demeanour is extremely grave, her eyes are red from weeping, she carrying Jonathan wrapped up in baby blankets, his head covered with a woollen cap, she walks swiftly towards us, in her free hand she carries a basket, and she has brought a flask of hot sweet tea to the trailer.
I watch my little siblings, Abigail, Catherine and Byron trailing behind her like chickens. They are blissfully ignorant of all suffering and pain. Their little lives are more beautiful than anything I could ever imagine. I suddenly feel an immense love for them. I pick up Abigail onto my hip and kiss her cheek which has become cold from the icy wind. They are warmly dressed in thick woollen jerseys that mother had hand knitted for them; they seem to be impervious to the cold. Judith leaves her sack next to the trailer and walks towards us.
Mom tells us that Wilna has passed away; she passed away peacefully in her sleep just before the break of dawn. She did not wake up from her peaceful sleep, she passed away without waking, she slipped away just before first light when the veld was still covered in a blanket of deep frost. She slipped away while the morning star still hung bright in the eastern sky. Wilna did not know that she had died. I am stunned by the news even though I expected that her death was going to be imminent. Mom pours the tea, she fills the four mugs with boiling hot tea, and steam rises from the cups. Tears brim in Judith’s eyes, she begins to sob.
Holding the cups we warm our hand. We sip our tea in silence; we try in vain to draw comfort from the sweet tea. Mom passes me a tissue. I blow my nose. I am crying now, tears roll my down cheeks. Nothing ever comes to any good at Waterlandsridge mother said to no one in particular. It does not seem right she said. Zac does not say anything. He just stands there to one side. He looks suddenly very tired and incredibly forlorn. His eyes became red. They stare with an inconsolable grief. They are brimming with tears. His lips tremble, he is struggling not to sob. Mother walks over to him; she hugs him with her free arm and kisses him on the cheek. It did not seem right was all she could say. Nothing comes to any good, and it does not seem fair. It is so unfair.
The wind blows, it tugs at the dry leaves. The dry empty tassels rattle. Her absence is palpable. Wilna is no longer. I feel a deep void, I feel a deep emptiness. I feel a forlornness that aches. My chest feels tight. Everything seems so precarious. She is gone. And now the waiting that we endured with her has also ended, and everything seems ultimately meaningless, and so futile, and she lived her life in vain. I feel overwhelmed by a rising tide of excruciating and inconsolable heartache. Streams of tears glisten in the weak sun on Judith’s cheeks. Her eyes have become red and puffed up.
I look up at the sombre grey skies. After eating the sandwiches we return to the field. I don’t know how I am going to survive the the rest of day, I don’t know how I will survive emotionally today, or tomorrow, and the next day, and I fear the loneliness of the coming night, and I dread waking up at the dawn of new day. Judith’s face is filled with sadness, her shoulders droop, and she drags the half-filled bag behind her.
Wilna’s death hangs over us like a dark cloud. I drag myself around like zombie. In the middle of the peach orchard next to the tram the harvest of white maize cobs has grown into a huge pyramid almost as high as the tram. I could not believe that this we, Zac, dad and myself had done this amount of work. Dad had towed the threshing machine to the edge of the white mountain of dried out maize cobs. I watched from the tram balcony while sipping a cup of sweet tea as tZac and dad connected the V belts to the tractor which would drive the mysterious inner workings of the machinery hidden inside the old yellow maize thresher. Dad started the tractor; it belched a plume of black diesel smoke as the engine coughed sluggishly as it took its first breath of the frosty morning air. The thresher started to shudder and vibrate making an awful din. Zac started shoving cobs down the chute and I could hear the abrasive sounds as the rapidly rotating tooth faced iron discs began stripping the maize kernels from the cob. Zac looked up and waved for me to come down and help feed the ferocious yellow monster.
I could not see dad, but he was collecting the continuous flowing yellow stream of grain into bags. He could not stop as the grain gushed out of the chute, he yelled out for Zac to drag away the bags that were already bursting full. Zac sowed the bags closed with string and dragged the two hundred pound bags to the trailer standing at the edge of the orchard.
Yesterday Wilna was laid to rest. They were short of a pall bearer. Mr de la Rey walked slowly down the aisle of the old klip kerk (stone church), he put his hand on Zac shoulder, Zac turned his head and looked up into Mr de la Rey’s grave face. Mr de la Rey bent over and spoke into Zac’s ear. Zac got and followed Mr de la Rey out of the church.
The shining black hearse had arrived. Wilna’s coffin was laden with bouquets of flowers. The coffin felt surprising light. Resting on a trestle in front of the church her mortal remains were bathed in shafts of wintery sunlight. She laid peacefully, her eyes closed, her head resting on a white satin pillow. It felt like it was just yesterday when she had told me that she had leukaemia and that she was going to die. We stood there together in the open veld; her dress billowed in a soft breeze.
After the funeral we continued with the threshing.
The peeler removed the husks and the thresher deshelled the cob, the vibrating screens separated the chaff from the grain. The wind blew away shredded fragments of husk across the fields. Cattle that been bought on auction as weaners for slaughter had been turned lose into the dried maize lands to feed on the stalks. At milking time dad switched off the tractor, Judith went to look after the baby and I strolled down to the river.
On the other side of the river a marsh harrier glided over the dried up vlei. Crossing the river I walked across the black clay turf land onto the de la Rey property to the spot were Wilna first informed me of her impending death. I stood by the spot for a while reflecting on things. It was so quiet. I stared across the veld and saw a marsh owl circling above a patch of tall dried grass. Walking over into the patch of tall grass I flushed a second owl. I found the nest on the ground. Three white fluffy owlets screeched as I stooped down to inspect them. The dead grassland was surprisingly alive with all kinds of living creatures. Across the veld in the distance the silence of the encroaching dusk was broken by the whistles and calls of farm workers driving cattle. Judith and I had only a week’s holiday left. With the threshing done I would have to starting studying for the Matric prelims. I was hoping to go to Wits in the New Year to study drama and English literature. It seemed that a BA would set me on the road to becoming a filmmaker. Judith also wanted to study English literature when she was finished with school. We did not want to be farmers like mom and dad.
From the tram’s balcony I can make out in the distance across the river the lonely figure of Zac. He had been standing still, frozen at the same spot in middle of the veld for a quite a while. Now he is making his way back through the knee high dry winter grass to the river crossing.
The official letter from the provincial roads department informed us the landowners that the construction of a new double lane national highway from Johannesburg to Durban and had been proclaimed. The proclamation stated that the highway would cut our farm in two. The proposed highway would pass through the tram and the peach orchard; it would pass directly through Koos de la Reys dairy across the river. The government would pay for the lost of our land, but effectively we would be losing by government fait a functional and productive farm. At supper dad explained to us all the ramifications that the proclamation held for us as a family. The farm would no longer be a viable business enterprise, we as a family stand on the threshold of losing our livelihood. As a family we have reached the cross roads. The future was now filled will all kinds of uncertainty. On hearing the news Judith could not contain her shock, she bursts out crying. We are going to be poor was all she could say. Mom was also tearful, and the three kids also began to cry as well. Dad put on a brave face as explained to us what he and mom had decided. The two halves of the farm would be sold to the landowners on either side of the existing farm. He could look for a job on the mines which should not be a problem as he was a qualified fitter and turner.
But then dad dropped the bombshell, he and mom decided that we were going to immigrate to America. Dad explained that they had given serious thought to the option of immigrating to America as he no longer believed that there was a future for us in South Africa given the political situation. We could start afresh in America. We would not be going to America empty handed but we would have enough seed capital to start farming again in the USA.
It was ironical that our farm was going to be cut in half so that people could get to Durban on a better road. It felt like I was having a bad dream, and hopefully I would be waking up soon. Dad reiterated that there no future for us in South Africa, especially after Sharpeville. Anyway if we moved to the Corn Belt in the Midwest of the USA it would be just like the Highveld plains, except that a yellow school bus would take the kids to school and Zac would be able to pursue his ambition to become a filmmaker in the USA and it would be easier for me to become a writer in American than in South Africa. He and mom were prepared to start from scratch in building a new farm and a new life in the USA.
Everything seemed to be settled, it was decided that we would be going to America. Zac seemed happy about the prospects. I had mixed feelings.
At the end of the year dad promised that the family would go for a long well deserved holiday to the sea. All I had to do now was focus on passing my Matric, and all that Judith need worry about was doing well at her school work. Over the next couple of weeks they planned to sell all the livestock and put the two halves of the farm on the market.
I saw a side of dad and mom which I never knew. They were completely unsentimental and took a very business-like pragmatic approach to all the ups and downs that life could possibly throw at them. Zac also seemed to be unsentimental about everything. He seemed quite keen about making a fresh start in America. I suddenly realized that I did not want leave our lives which revolved around the farm and living in the tram. Anyway dad was offered a job on the mines at Daggafontein in January and we would be leaving sooner than I had anticipated.
With everything finally sold dad traded in the VW kombi bakkie and VW Beetle for a second hand VW kombi van because it made more sense to have a van for the big family rather than a sedan. The Greylings were served with notice to vacate the farm house and our modest collection of furniture and household goods was moved into the mine house at Daggafontein. Judith was hopeful that we would be able to keep two of the horses on the mine property but in the end they had to be sold as well. We stayed in the tram with the absolute bare minimum of things until Judith and I had finished our exams.
At 3.00 am on Friday the 7th of December 1962 our lives on the farm at Waterlandsridge came to an abrupt end after dad hitched the caravan to the Kombi and we drove down the popular lined two track sand road to the farm gate for the last time forever. Dad drove slowly over the cattle crossing and we turned right onto the main Johannesburg-Durban road. We had all been born on the farm and until the day we left it we had known no other life. Mom and I wept as we drove away. Dad was also tearful, there were tears brimming his eyes. Zac was silent and reflective, almost pensive. He was now finished with high school and stood on the threshold of a new life. So leaving the farm was actually the start of a real beginning for him. A chapter in our lives had come to an end. The kids were excited and happy. We were now part of the happy holiday pilgrimage to Durban. Travelling along the magical December holiday route we looked forward to passing through all the towns that now seemed like old friends who had been waiting a long time for our visit. Mom liked to drive through the towns and marvelled in her slightly Italian accented English at what she noticed and what intrigued her. And so after Heidelberg we drove to Standerton, and then Vrede and Warden. At Harrismith we stopped at the garage by the town’s entrance. While dad filled the Kombi we got out and stretched our legs. Zac noticed that something strange was happening to the willow trees by the small stream across the road from the garage. We walked over and saw that all leaves on the trees were being stripped bare by a plague of giant caterpillars. I had never seen anything like this in my entire life.
Going up Van Reenen’s Pass we joined the long procession of caravans travelling slowly up the winding road that took us to the top of windswept escarpment of the Drakensberg. Judith could not contain her excitement when we eventually reached the summit of the great escarpment. Crossing the escarpment we picked up momentum as we descended into the rich savannahs that lined the road to Ladysmith. On our right we could see the purple shrouded silhouette of the Drakensberg Mountains in the distant.
Passing through the thorn bush cloaked broken hill country of Ladysmith we followed the procession of caravans to Estcourt. Zac stared at the passing countryside taking in the changing scenery. He had been strangely quite for most of the trip. Even mom turned around and asked if he was feeling OK. There were unmistakable traces of exhaustion on his face. He was definitely not his normal self. Maybe he was feeling the sudden rupture of lives our more profoundly than we were. Dad and mom were buoyant. I could sense that in their minds we were already on our passage to America. They also found themselves in the grip of a mystical wanderlust; especially after having shed their burden of the farm, with an unexpected healthy financial windfall. Mom was happy, she always felt that there was a jinx on Waterlandsridge; Zac thought it was just her superstitious Italian nature. There was a bitter-sweet sense to our departure from Waterlandsridge. I know that Waterlandsridge would live an after life in my dreams for the rest of my life; there is no doubt about that. But now we were going to allow themselves a well deserved family holiday. Mom and dad seemed to be on a second honey moon, it was so funny, they were being so all lovey-dovey with each other, maybe a seventh child was on way, who knows. Mom seemed to have spent her whole life being pregnant. But I really hope that they were now finished with making their family of kids. They should rather now focus on the future for the fulfilment of new dreams, to be made a reality in America. Maybe the American dream will become our own dream as well. Maybe America has always been our family’s ultimate destination when our European ancestors left the old country of Norway and Italy in search of a better life. Maybe we, the descendants of Europeans, are immigrants by nature, and just maybe our true home is America. Maybe America is our destination. Anyone who is prepared to work hard like mom and dad can make a new life in America.
After Pietermaritzburg we descended into the valley of a thousand hills. The excitement in the Kombi became increasing palpable. Abigail, Catherine and Byron had never seen the sea, and we after drove past Pinetown they began to chant ‘sea, sea, sea.’ Judith couldn’t hide her excitement. Her face was a picture of sheer bliss, as she waited in anticipation to catch a glimpse of the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean. Our destination was a caravan park in Amanzimtoti right next to the beach.
Dad said first things first, so we set up camp at our site in the caravan park. Judith was anxious to get to the beach as soon as possible, so she helped me and dad to put up the caravan tent and unpack the Kombi while mom prepared dinner for the kids and the baby.
Once everything was done and we had eaten supper, Zac and I changed into our costumes and set off to the beach. We had discovered that next to the ablution blocks the caravan park also had a covered enclosure with table tennis facilities. After swimming we decided to go for a walk along the beach while there was still some daylight left. The beach was not yet deserted. As we set off on our walk other holiday makers were returning from their late afternoon stroll. Walking towards us on the hard wet sand zone of the shoreline were two girls in bikinis. As they drew closer, I could see that they were sisters, the older sister walking with her younger sibling, their family resemblance was obvious. The younger sister could not have been older that fourteen years and the older sister was between seventeen and eighteen. They had both dark brown hair and captivating deep turquoise blue eyes. They could have been mistaken for aliens from another planet who just happened to be visiting. Their bodies from head to foot were tanned an unusual light caramel or light toffee colour. They could have easily been mistaken for Coloured girls. In the late afternoon sunlight the sun bleached streaks in their hair glowed like strands of gold. They both were stunningly attractive. The older one looked at Zac. “She is very pretty don’t you think.” I said to Zac.
Judith thought the girls were pretty. The elder one was exotically attractive, there was no denying that.
Under dreamy blue skies, we spent our first languid days lazing on our canvas foldup chairs in the shade of our brand new multi-coloured beach umbrella. We had bought sunglasses so that we could read without being blinded by the white glare from the pages of our books. Our books lay opened and unread on our laps as we took in the surrounding beach scenes from behind the comfort of our sunglasses. Every now and then mom and I got up to swim. We put on our black bathing caps and standing waist deep we cooled off in the surf.
Dad and Zac spent most of the day standing in the surf spoon fishing for shad about 100 meters down the beach form us. Abigail, Catherine and Byron sat playing nearby in the foamy surf washing up onto the beach. Jonathan sat in his carrycot. For our lunch on the beach mom brought a flask of tea and a cake tin full of sandwiches.
The pretty girl and her younger sister, both also wearing sunglasses, lay on their towels under their umbrella a few meters away from us. She had become the focus of attention of the local surfing boys. They all seemed to be connected as volunteers with the life-savers club. They left their towels, shorts, shirts and sandal piled up in heap next to her for her look after. They jogged with their surf boards into the sea. A tall blond one stayed behind. He was definitely in his mid -twenties and seemed to be one of the professional life-savers who happened to be off-duty for the morning. He stayed behind for a while with pretty girl; he sat on his hunches talking to her. When he was finished he stood up, he took off his watch and gave it to her to keep for him. Stretching, he pulled his T-shirt off over his head. He pulled off his shorts revealing his tight-fitting red life-saver’s Speedo. A rectangular silver coloured box containing French Letters tumbled from his pocket onto the sand. It flashed brightly in the sunlight. He reached out and closed his hand around the box and put it back into the pocket of his shorts.
I was informed by the younger sister, whose name was Ranneigh, when we first made our acquaintance, in the women’s ablution blocks that they were from Rhodesia. The younger sister, who said she that was fourteen years old, also told me that the older sister was being actively courted by several life-savers, including the tall blond lifesaver. The younger sister hinted that her sister was attracted to Zac; she thought he was a nice guy. The younger sister who seemed to be a bit too precocious for her age also thought that Zac was a nice guy, and she wondered whether he liked her.
I was surprised when the older sister came over and spoke to me while I sat meditating on the beach after the rest of the family had gone back to the caravan park. She introduced herself as Hillevi Arvid and after we had chatted for a while she asked if I would like to go to a beach party. Dad and mom said I could go as long as I didn’t drink any alcohol. We had grown up in an alcohol free home, so I did not care much for alcohol anyway. Judith also wanted to go. But dad she was too young to be going to beach parties. It turned out that Hillevi had grown up on a tobacco farm in Rhodesia and had gone to an all girls private school in Salisbury. We discovered that we had in fact a lot in common as individual who had grown up on farms
My holiday would have been perfect if I could have gone to the beach party tonight. Nothing ever good happens to me, this has been the story of my life. The most beautiful girl that I have ever seen, the girl from Rhodesia has fallen in love with my brother, Zac. They are now walking on the beach while I lie on the camping stretcher. I can hear the sound of the boiling white surf rushing up the beach; I can hear the distinctive percussion of huge breakers crashing in the dark. Zac has always lived a charmed life. His suffering was brief; his grief has been washed away by an overwhelming compensation of goodness that flowed, unasked for, into his life. I am jealous of her beauty. I will call her Miss French Letter because I don’t believe that she is virgin, and it also makes me feel better. Ranneigh has become my shadow. It is dark outside, but she is calling me. I get up; I put on my gown and slippers to see what she wants. She is calling me to come and look at the fruit bats that are busy in the trees next to the ablution blocks.
It was pitch dark on beach. Dad said I should take a torch. The sand had lost all of its heat. We walked towards the sounds of the crashing surf and then walked along the firm sand on shore line towards the bonfire.
They have brought a battery operated portable record player to the beach party. And they played the Shirelles’s ‘Baby’s it you’, ‘Will you still love me tomorrow’ and ‘Dedicated to the one I love’. And Pat Boone’s ‘Speedy Gonzales’, Chubby Checker ‘Let’s twist again’, and Ray Charles’ ‘Hit the road Jack’. And also Ben King’s ‘Spanish Harlem’ and ‘Stand by me’.
Hearing the same music on the beach that I had shared with Wilna I started feeling very strange. I begin to reflect on that last night that I had spent with Wilna at her home. When I woke up in her room I felt confused and uncertain about everything. I was not sure what to do the circumstance that I had found myself in. I was in the presence of someone I cared a lot for who was dying and I knew that she would have wanted me to stay with her right until the moment of her death. Yet in the early hours of the morning she looked so peaceful. It did not seem that she would die within hours after I had left her. But she never woke up again. Should I have stayed until the end? But I was worried about getting back to the tram. Her lamp was still on. She was sleeping peacefully. I didn’t think she would pass away within a few hours after I had left her. I was supposed to be with her right until the end. It was a commitment that I had made to myself. It was an unspoken commitment that she was counting on. Then her parents got up. We stood in the hallway in a state of confused uncertainty. I was not a member of the family, yet somehow my connection to Wilna was important to them. I was an important figure in her life at the moment. She needed me as much as she needed her mother and father. ‘Kiss me quick….never let me go,’ I was filled with uncertainty and felt confused, I felt that I had to get back to the tram, I felt torn between conflicting commitments. In retrospect I should have stayed with her until daybreak, until dawn. I made a promise to myself after her death that I would never ever again let someone down who was in situation of extreme and profound need. I would stay with that person until the end.
I feel Hillevi’s hand on top of my hand. Are you OK I hear her saying. Her face was filled with unexpected concern. I take hold of her hand and smile. I say ‘I am OK.’ I wanted to be alone with her; I suggest we go for a walk. She had been invited to the party and now we are leaving together into the dark, walking towards the sound of breakers away from her circle of life-saving and surfing acquaintances that she had formed over the past week or so. We are walking away from her pursuers, the local Amanzimtoti surfing boys. As an outsider from the Transvaal I felt no connection to anyone at the beach party, I felt bored. I was not into smoking and drinking alcohol. I just wanted to hold Hillevi and kiss her.
We embrace and kiss. I feel her affection for me. I sense it, we have made a connection.
But I have no connection to anything here anymore. I feel estranged even as we walk together holding hands. I am aware of the bitter-sweet presence of the beautiful Hillevi next to me. It will be so easy for me to fall in love with her. But we are going to America and she will become a bitter-sweet memory of a beautiful holiday romance, and after that she will be separated from me by the vast Atlantic Ocean, and it will be bitter because our time together would have been too brief, the memory of our time together will become a source of deep melancholy, nostalgia and yearning. Will I again live to regret this? Will I ever be with anyone again who would be as beautiful as Wilna or Hillevi?
I don’t want to spend the evening in the caravan park when there is a beach party going on round a bomb fire on the beach. I go and plead with mom and dad. Mom and dad say it is Ok if I with go Ranneigh for a walk on the beach. I quickly get dressed in proper clothes. We take torches with us. We see the bonfire of the beach party and decide to walk in the other direction. We hear the constant percussion of waves breaking. We shine our torches towards the sea and we see the white foam racing up the beach.
I think of America.