As I said in the preface to my recently posted story, The Writer’s Safari, I haven’t traveled anywhere for a year, and am living quietly at home, so I have no new adventures to share. But I do have photos taken three years ago, whilst visiting my family in Kwa-Zulu Natal, that never made it on to my Despatches blog. After my visit I was too busy running round, involved in activity – we all remember those days, don’t we? But now I have the time to sort through my pics, and put together a post or two.
This post shows one of my favourite places: The Kloof and Highway SPCA. The large property is situated in a wild, hillside area close to the commercial area, but it could be a million miles away, due to the tropical vegetation and the wildlife.
The chief attraction for me is their second-hand bookshop – literally thousands of books in a thoroughly awkward space, punctuated by sudden, unexpected, spine- jolting steps, invisible in the badly lit space. An upmarket shop it ain’t. I know the roof leaks and in the thick, humid tropical climate, that doesn’t do books a lot of good, as you can imagine. Notwithstanding this, I’ve unearthed some real treasures over the years. And the money supports their wonderful non-profit organization. Where would we be without the SPCA?
But the other major attraction are the spacious grounds, covered in tough kikuyu grass, shaded by enormous old tropical trees and wandering around completely at ease, are magnificent peacocks, screaming at the top of their raucous voices . Their noisy cries are equalled by the constant chorus of barking from the dog kennels. Help! bark the dogs, Where am I? why am I locked up? where are my humans? It’s heart breaking. You just want to adopt them all, and of course, you can’t.
But notwithstanding the soundtrack, the peacocks are wonderful to watch as they parade around, pecking up ants in the lawns, or roosting noisily atop the buildings.
And added to their displays, are the hordes of monkeys running confidently around the grounds, leaping onto roofs, swinging from tree to tree, constantly on the lookout for food or other diversions.
An SPCA volunteer grumbled to me that the monkeys would invade the buildings and raid any unlocked drawers or cupboards, on the hunt for food and apparently addicted to sugar. Woe betide any distracted volunteer who left out the sugar bowl after making coffee, because a crafty monkey would soon materialize and make off with their favourite treat! Those clever black paws had even mastered the simple locking devices installed on cupboards, so the war between monkeys and humans never ceases.
And should you be relaxing with a cuppa in the tea-garden, located on the lawns underneath the shady trees, you needed to be super vigilant about your cream scone (and the sugar bowl!) because beady eyes in the surrounding trees are monitoring your every move and just waiting to swoop down and steal a morsel.
Kids loved chasing the monkeys when the monkeys swing down from the branches into the playground area; along, through, under and over the Jungle Gym and swings – far more agile than the clumsy kids pursuing them.
13th February was World Radio Day and Cape Talk Radio, my local radio station, asked listeners to phone in and share their first memories of radio, and what radio meant in their lives. The listeners flooded the station with calls and WhatsApp messages, not only from senior listeners, but enthusiastic responses across the spectrum .
We heard about kids being allowed to broadcast on Dad’s Ham Radio, in the back shed. We heard about the exciting arrival of Q Cards – something to do with signal frequencies by location (hope I’ve got that right!). We heard about listeners sharing national grief at the death of famous statesmen; their enjoyment of radio dramas, serials and book-readings; and of course the music, and a top favourite in South Africa: sports broadcasts, especially ball by ball commentaries.
My earliest radio memory comes from the mid-1940s when the radio was ceremonially switched on, to listen in hushed silence to the news from the BBC in London. First came the rousing signature tune D’ye ken John Peel? And then the clipped tones of the newscaster, reading the news, followed by the all important English Soccer League results.
You had to hold your breath to hear anything at all, because reception was dreadful, faint and staticky, especially if the all-important car battery which powered the radio was going flat. We had no electricity, and life on a remote central African tea estate was isolated to say the least. Private telephones in homes were unknown so you couldn’t phone a friend for a cosy chat. The country had only one newspaper which was published once a week, a few slim pages, which was always a week old by the time it reached us. Roads were primitive, public transport didn’t exist, neighbours were far away, so that radio really was a lifeline!
Once the news was over, the radio was switched off. Due to the battery situation, the power had to be carefully husbanded. And today we blithely leave the radio playing day and night, if we feel like it. Provided Eskom hasn’t decided on loadshedding and switched off the power … what’s that French saying? Tout la meme change … the more things change, the more they remain the same.
I’m recycling a much older post that I wrote in 2014, also on the topic of radio. Here it is, below:
THIS IS THE VOICE OF AMERICA – July 2014.
My love affair with the Radio continues.
As I lay in bed, alternately groaning and cursing during a bout of gastric ‘flu, my feeble hand managed to grasp my Samsung Galaxy tablet, and started fiddling with the icon marked BBC Radio. I have to say, I think that small action improved my health more than all the ginger tea, Probiotics, and other remedies combined.
I spent a happy time discovering a weird variety of stations ; one poured out Bangladeshi Classical music; another pumped out jolly accordion/organ sing-a-long tunes from the Nederlands. Radio Venice offering baroque music. A station in Sweden broadcasting in Farsi. I’m still trying to work that one out. And, no, I don’t speak Farsi. Radio Mediterranean offered a heady mix of Armenian, Arabic, Italian, French, Greek music. There were umpteen Polish stations promoting music from hip-hop, to acid jazz, to urban funk, lounge, and salsa. Fabulous! Almost worth being sick. Almost, but not quite.
Long ago, when I was a misunderstood teenager, I was given a portable radio – battery powered, of course, I’m speaking of the pre-electronic age, a.k.a. The Olden Days. It offered short, long and medium wave reception. I think it was a Phillips radio, in a smart cream and chocolate plastic casing. I absolutely loved it, and would spend hours twiddling the dial, fighting the dreadful static and the waning battery power, straining my ears for the tiniest snatch of LM Radio’s weekly Hit Parade, or trolling through foreign language stations, listening to streams of exotic sounding languages, and desperately wishing I could understand some of it.
But the one station that was always amazingly clear, was the Voice of America. You knew immediately when you hit it, because out poured a stream of jazz, or Benny Goodman’s band, playing a swing tune. Just knowing that I was listening to someone or something from half-way across the globe gave me such a thrill. It still does. Over and out!
Because of the Pandemic, I have no travel stories to tell, and an uneventful lifeat home. So here is one of my long stories, about an amateur writer who goes on a family fishing holiday on the Zambezi River. It describes another lifestyle, another country, another time. Remember: this is fiction! Enjoy
There’s small glossary at the end, should you need it.
The two Land Rovers forged noisily northwards, bypassing Harare, through Rusape, past ruined tobacco barns, past rotted polythene growing tunnels; past deserted mud huts, thatch threadbare and holed, past straggly stunted mealies, past ragged children who waved listlessly at the small convoy, past all signs of cultivation or human habitation until finally there was nothing but bush. Virgin bush on every side, up to the horizon which was framed by the clear blue sky. Aileen gave a sigh of contentment. This was what she had worked for, saved for, dreamed of and slogged for with iron determination. Just bush, and a glorious ten days of no office, no telephones, no kids. Just bush, the river and some fishing and finally, the chance to get down to some serious writing. Perfect!
Up front Uncle Harry drove, completely on automatic pilot, intent on a PhD level discussion with Neville on the new Bok team to play Scotland. Next to Aileen in the back, Aunt Susie sat knitting, also on automatic pilot.
Clive drove the second Landy, with George as navigator, and Phineas and Enoch as passengers. Uncle Harry believed in camping in comfort with all mod cons, which included hot and cold running camp staff, hence the presence of Phineas and Enoch. In his scheme of things the perfect fishing trip did not include fire making, water carrying, dish-washing, fish gutting and cleaning, camp site cleaning or the digging of latrines and erecting of shower shelters. However, Phineas and Enoch also benefited from fishing trips to the river, as they filleted and smoked the fat Zambezi tiger fish which they later sold at an enormous profit in the Bulawayo townships. Everybody happy.
That evening the party relaxed by the fire after a long hot day’s drive to the river. The night was warm and utterly dark, frogs creaked on the river banks, the mosquitoes sang busily but this was all part of the bush experience and Aileen loved every bit of it. A long day’s travel is best followed by an early night and the party thankfully crept into their two-man tents. Aileen was too tired to even attempt her usual day’s end diary entry. Tomorrow, she thought sleepily, tomorrow I’ll ………
Phineas arrived at 5 a.m. with mugs of tea. So getting up very early to catch the freshness of the river at sunrise was no hardship. Aileen and Neville set up-river with George and Clive, the rubber-duck making good headway against the strong current. Clive piloted them to an old favourite fishing spot and they settled down to enjoying the coolness of the early morning, competitively identifying bird-calls, spotting a pod of hippo further upstream on the far bank, casting out their lines, waiting for the tell-tale bob of the float, the tentative tug on the line.
Aileen planned to use river scenery details in the novel she was working on, and scratched around in her backpack for her Writer’s Notebook, greatly irritating the men who knew that Zambezi fish have ultra-sensitive hearing easily disturbed by the sounds generated by females flapping around in small boats. She glared at them, and continued to dig fruitlessly in her backpack. Damn! She must have left her vital notebook back in their tent. Oh well. She began to make mental notes about the sounds, colours, smells, sensations and string together a few handy phrases, when her reverie was interrupted by Clive who angrily hissed that her line had drifted across his and now look what had happened! Lines crossed and inextricably tangled! Lines and peace were finally restored, but since the fish were not in a co-operative mood, breakfast seemed like a good option.
Enoch and Aunt Susie had produced a mammoth breakfast. Uncle Harry, a man of fixed view and pronounced paunch, held that a substantial breakfast around 9 a.m. followed by a light snack lunch of beer around mid-day (too hot to eat, anyway, proclaimed Uncle Harry) and then a decent early braai was the only sensible catering scheme for fishing trips. Fortified by breakfast the party applied sunblock and determination in equal quantities and fished until lunch-time, returning from the river with ten fat tiger fish and powerful thirsts.
Aileen had discovered that her essential Writer’s Notebook was not in the tent, or anywhere else. Seemingly she had left it behind in Aunt Susie’s spare bedroom. The only other paper in camp was Aunt Susie’s beloved collection of Agatha Christie novels and removal of the spare flysheets at the back of the books was unthinkable. This pillage would have been fatal to their battered constitutions. What to do? Oddly enough Phineas came to the rescue with a modest blue Croxley writing pad. “Madam can use this,” he offered. Aileen seized it gratefully and hastily jotted down some of the rapidly vanishing phrases from her morning sunrise on the river. Better than nothing, she supposed, writing extra small, so as to save precious paper.
Her main writing task on this trip, now that she had some time and head-space at her disposal, was to plot the frame-work of her novel, get the story-line into shape, and work out where best to insert the main dramatic events that befell her heroine, a young Scottish lass, newly emigrated to the colonies and faced with life in the raw on an African tobacco farm. Lions , migrating herds of game, yes, all the details of old pristine Africa, the challenges of pioneer-style living, and of course, the romance. Aileen was undecided as to whether the romantic interest would best be served by a pale young DC with a mystery history ( a remittance man? Aristocratic black sheep?) saved by the love of a good woman; or maybe a better foil for the Scottish lass would be a sunburned but silent white hunter? While pondering these options the snack lunch and the furnace heat of mid-day took their toll, and Aileen slept.
Phineas toiled around at 4.30 with fresh installments of tea, and fishing resumed against the gaudy backdrop of the African sunset over the Zambezi. The sun died in a glorious burst of crimson, peach and gold while the pale blue sky turned suitably to deep mid-night blue. Sunburned, relaxed and replete the fishing party gazed sleepily into the roaring camp-fire. Mmmh, thought Aileen, the smell of woodsmoke, the utterly dark sky, night sounds of the bush – oh, the peace! She savoured it. Peaceful, and tranquil, no worries, no crime, no high-jackings, just the blessed, blessed bush. She could have sat in her canvas camp chair all night but Neville prised her out and they wandered off to their tent by the light of their torch. Disturbed by her departure, the large adult puff-adder under her camp-chair gathered itself together and slithered off in search of a frog, leaving a sandy signature in its wake.
“Hau, Madam was lucky last night,” said Phineas chattily, offering an enamel mug of tea at 5 a.m. “big njoka under Madam’s chair last night!” he chortled, trundling away with his tea-tray. “Don’t worry babes,” said Neville comfortingly, “they only bite if you step on them. No need to catch such a skrik!”
The days settled into an easy pattern of early mornings, days on the river, snack lunches of beer, nights around the fire with jovial and embroidered accounts of the monsters that got away, together with the eternal minute analyses of the Boks’ performance at rugby and cricket.
Aunt Susie cooked and knitted. The tstetse flies feasted on the party, save for Phineas and Enoch whose fish-smoking activities would have proofed them against attach by rabid vultures, never mind hungry tstetse flies. The mercury climbed effortlessly into the high 30’s, early 40’s. Enoch had to dig another pit to tidy up the mountain of empty beer cans.
Nothing much else happened. Aileen loved it. Daily after lunch she sat down with the blue Croxley pad and wrestled with the plot, which was proving difficult. Somehow the romantic episodes were proving the most difficult of all. She loathed the bodice ripper style of encounter, all that thrusting and heavy breathing and quivering: ugh! Her novel would be sensitive, tasteful, yet passionate and earthy.
Hmmmmm. Her own experience in this area was limited, due to an early marriage and a husband who took a workmanlike approach to his love life which might best be described as thorough, but uninspired. Apart from his curious habit, she mused, of muttering rugby players names just prior orgasm. She had never understood this odd foible and he had made it clear, long ago, that he did not intend to explain.
The answer was simple of course: by mentally reciting the names of every Springbok player since 1960, Neville was able to delay orgasm very successfully, until he could no longer withstand the urgent tide. And what was even more curious, she ruminated, was that she had distinctly heard George (or was it Clive?) shout out Os du Randt! last night, well after lights out. Surely to goodness those wretched men didn’t dream about rugby all night as well as talk about it all day ? Aileen doodled distractedly on the blue Croxley pad seeking inspiration.
Neville’s sportsmanlike approach to sex had proved equally inspiring to George and Clive, after he had revealed his formula for a happy marriage to the pair one hot afternoon when they had the boat to themselves and the fish were off the bite. It must have been the effect of an usually hearty snack lunch that had encouraged him to reveal these confidences. George and Clive had been impressed by this useful approach and had earnestly assured him they would remember this sage advice when the next suitable occasion presented itself.
Aileen’s thoughts turned to George and Clive – what marvelous heroic prototypes those two were, deeply tanned from days in the veld on the farm, strongly built, clean shaven, clean cut in fact. Maybe she could model her fictional hero on them. She wondered why they’d never married, two attractive men like that. Just as well perhaps, because when Clive had been kicked off his farm by the war veterans George, on the next-door farm, had generously taken him in, and Clive had simply stayed on, two years was it now? No wife would have tolerated that she thought, but still what a pity, such a good looking guy. She dozed off, stunned by the snack lunch and the sun, to be awoken hours later by the ever obliging Phineas, offering a tray of tea.
“Madam is writing more letters?” enquired Phineas eyeing the blue Croxley pad. “Umm no, not letters” replied Aileen suddenly shy about explaining her literary aspirations to Phineas, even though he was the generous donor of precious paper. “I, uhh” she began but was interrupted by a stentorian bellow from Uncle Harry demanding assistance with the cleaning of his days’ catch of tiger fish. That’s a relief she thought as Phineas briskly sped away down to the river bank, his white Bata takkies twinkling brightly through the short grass. However could she even begin to explain the plot of a romantic novel, set in Pioneer Days, to Phineas?
Phineas in fact, had literary problems of his own. Aileen was not alone in her troubles. Had she but known it, he could have provided a very sympathetic ear. His German publisher was snapping at his heels and demanding, via a stream of hysterical phone calls, sight of the first four chapters of the new novel, and he was two months in arrears with his translation from the Ndebele into English of the traditional saga about the Nyami-nyami legend of the mythical water creature that lived in the deep pools of the Zambezi below the Vic Falls. He hacked viciously into the fat belly of a tiger fish and the entrails spilled out in a slimy, bloody knot – curse all publishers, all agents, all accountants, all lawyers, if he could consign the lot of them into the jaws of the nyami-nyami he would!
With rapid harsh movements he de-scaled the tiger fish. A savage stroke beheaded the next fish from the awaiting pile. The glassy fish-eye on the disembodied head reminded him suddenly of Rolf, his drug dealer in Cologne. He looked around covertly. He was alone on the river bank. He stabbed the fisheye repeatedly muttering “you bastard, you bastard” until the terrible craving had subsided. Phineas sank back on his haunches, exhaled deeply, and let the scaling knife drop onto the sand. He washed his bloody hands in the river and noted with irritation that he’d got blood on his Bata tackies. He’d never hear the end of it from Uncle Enoch.
Uncle Enoch was very, very proud of Phineas’ accomplishments and very, very condemnatory of his dissipated European lifestyle. It was Uncle Enoch who had offered Phineas a refuge, a bolt-hole, while he tried to shake off the drug demons and tried to start writing again. As a strategy it had worked beautifully. Who would have dreamed of looking for star writer Phin Makawira, prize-winning novelist Phin, in the cook-boy’s quarters of Uncle Harry’s Bulawayo mansion? Certainly not Rolf, certainly not those hyenas from the lawyers and accountants and publishers.
Phineas hurled the fishy debris as far as he could into the river and watched with respect as a knobbly head surfaced briefly and swirled around the sinking mess. Crocodile would be too good an ending for those people he thought grimly, swinging his pail of fish as he headed for the camp kitchen.
All too soon it was time to pack up camp and drive back to Bulawayo, step back into the real world of business, home and kids. Aileen loved her terrifically relaxing trip and redeemed herself by catching the biggest tigerfish , nearly 9 kgs. Enoch had tenderly entombed it in the gas fridge, and it would be rushed to the taxidermist in Bulawayo at the first opportunity. So much for women messing around in small boats and disturbing the fish thought Aileen smugly. On the whole she hadn’t done much writing and had returned the now rather tatty blue Croxley pad to Phineas who had remarked “Madam has the writer’s block too?” She must have misheard him, what a strange thing to say.
Nothing hugely exciting had happened on the trip, except perhaps the night when Clive (or was it George?) had shrieked Francois Pienaar! At the top of his lungs late one night and startled the eleven hippo who had been grazing quietly on the grass between the tents, and in their mad rush back to the water, had careered into the guy ropes of Uncle Harry’s tent, causing it to collapse on the occupants. The entire campsite was startled into groggy wakefulness and it took some time to calm Aunt Susie and re-erect the tent. Clive had been very apologetic about startling the hippo – must have been dreaming and shouted out, he muttered, sorry chaps!
Phineas and Enoch had rushed in to assist and Aileen couldn’t help but notice that Phineas had the most dreadful scars on his thighs, and, would you believe, Calvin Kline underwear. Probably Taiwanese rip-offs from the market she thought. So she wouldn’t really have anything terribly exciting to report to her Writers’ Circle meeting when she got back, other than her embarrassing lack of progress on The Novel. Nothing like the exciting literary tours that Piet from her Writers’ Circle kept going on, she thought wistfully, wish I could hobnob with famous writers like he does! Oh well, she had at least the glory of that magnificent 9kg tigerfish, if nothing else.
Bok team = South African Springbok rugby team
Mealies = maize plants
Njoika = snake
Skrik = fright
Bata takkies = ubiquitous brand of sandshoes, known as plimsolls in British English
On January 1st, 2021, I packed away my Christmas decoration table display, and removed my bead wreath from my front door grille.
Next task was to changeover the calendars. Down came the 2020 Wildlife calendar, up went the pretty Paws and Petals calendar. Lovely! a colourful, calming picture of cats posed decoratively amongst the flowers. Inspiration above my worktable. Great.
Final chore: to write up the birthday dates into my new 2021 diary, without which no one would receive my enthusiastic rendering on their birthday of ¶♫Happy Birthday to youuuu ¶♫…. sung by Yours Truly, somewhat out of tune, but with feeling.
Oh what a happy glow of accomplishment! Bolstered by the happy knowledge that I decided not to make any New Year Resolutions this year. Note to all my readers who were nervously anticipating strange homemade gifts this coming Christmas (see previous post). Friends, it was but a passing fancy. Not an iron-clad resolution.
So: all organized, everything under control. I was prepped, ready for 2021.
But unfolding events on Wednesday 6 January in Washington, USA shattered my sangfroid. Nothing could have prepared me for the sight, va BBC TV News, of rioting Trump supporters storming the Capitol Building, and invading it. I was shocked. I was appalled. I was stunned. To put it mildly.
I live in Africa. I am well accustomed to news/footage of dictators fomenting riot and resolution when elections don’t go their way. But Americans? No! Surely not! Isn’t the USA meant to be the bastion of democracy, the leader of the Free World, the leader of the West? But if a narcissistic, rabble rouser is Top Dog, then look out. All the high flown ideals are tossed onto the rubbish heap, and mob rule is encouraged.
Which brings me to Napoleon Buonaparte, Emperor of France. I have been watching a fascinating TV documentary on the Corsican soldier, inspired by visions of classical heroes like Julius Caesar, soldier, leader, emperor extraordinaire – Napoleon’s role model.
A brilliant military strategist, Buonaparte tamed the post-French Revolution Mob chaos, brought order, rule of law, dignity and imperial status to his country. He unified France, which flourished and became a solid, established, modern society. History has recognized Napoleon’s genius.
How will History judge Donald Trump, I wonder? An aberration of the Social Media Age?
I watch unfolding events in the USA with horrified fascination. My feelings today can be summed up by a meme currently floating around WhatsApp and it crisply states:
I’d like to cancel my subscription to 2021. I’ve experienced the free 7 day trial and I am not interested.
Because I’m hiding away from the dreaded Second Wave, I’m watching a lot of programmes on the Home Channel, and I’m all fired up. Next year, friends and family will open their gifts and gasp: Did YOU make this? Yourself? Whether the gasps will be of horror or admiration remains to be seen.
How hard can it be? Knock up a batch of shortbread? Tick. Knock up a batch of Fir-tree shaped biscuits? Tick. Bash out a couple of fruit cakes mid-October, buy a bottle of brandy, and tenderly dose the cakes at weekly intervals. Tick. These I can do. Easy peasy.
Ditto making chutney when apricot and tomatoes are plentiful. Tick. Doable. Provided we aren’t plagued with load-shedding in 2021, hello Eskom, are you listening?
But there are other options: apparently all I need is bunch of willow branches, a stout pair of pliers, iron determination and I will weave a batch of wooden placemats, or maybe a small laundry hamper. The relentlessly enthusiastic English TV anchor made it look so simple. Now where am I going to source willow branches? Do willows even grow in this province, I wonder? Maybe Karree tree branches would work out? This is so exciting!
And then, I nearly forgot: Knitted items , and crochet whatsits. Why, I saw an adorable little crocheted snowflake in a craft magazine, only yesterday. Never mind that the South African Christmas season is blazingly hot, and not a snowflake in sight. Details, details! Don’t be a wet blanket! Of course, I’ll have to learn how to crochet, but that’s all on YouTube, isn’t it ? No problem.
Or I can raid my trove of wallpaper samples, ( note to self: start collecting wallpaper samples); cut out floral bits and bobs and make individual handsewn greetings cards; or decorate the cover of the handmade book that I’ve conjured up out of thick manilla paper, and magicked up a cover out of an old leather coat that I’ve cut up. Must say I have reservations about cutting up an old leather coat. Even if it is Pleather. Is this a good idea, I wonder? Again, the TV anchor was amazingly nonchalant about attacking an old leather jacket with an enormous pair of shears. Mind you, it was a nasty shade of green, so what the heck.
Really, the choice is dazzling, and I haven’t even got around to the knitted and sewn items. I mean, socks, scarves, beanies, dinky little purses. Positively overwhelming.
Oh! the agonies of choice! A greener, more thoughtful Christmas. Thoughtfully curated gifts, personally designed and laboriously made; no more raids on the Chinese plastic shop.
The only thing between me and a homespun Christmas in 2021 are the following: a glue gun, a craft cutting mat, a super-sharp craft knife, an awl, pliers, a steel ruler, paint, decorative trinkets, buttons, raffia, fabric strips, a collection of wallpaper samples, fabrics samples, buttons, sequins, dinky charms, a ton of glass and ceramic beads, oh …. and a lot more besides.
My word, I’m going to be busy in the New Year. Alternatively I could just go online on Black Friday and press the plastic. Takelot.com could see me around the end of November. Watch this space. And if you don’t want a home-made gift, I suggest you start planning your home removal right now! You have been warned.
Boxing Day arrives in a burst of sunshine, decorated with a cool breeze and its obviously Beach Weather. So I grab my towel and cozzie, crank up the VeeDub, and drive to Melkbostrand. Because I’m an early bird, I actually find parking, and also a free patch of sand to deposit my towel, beach bag and book. My spirits lift. Christmas Day is always a bad day for me . Too many painful memories, no prezzies, no big family lunch, no …. Stop it, stop it, I scold myself, no wallowing! My eyes are watering. I sternly tell myself focus on the seagulls, the gentle incoming waves, the ozoney-suntan oily smell of the beach.
There’s plenty of activity. People are being towed along the beach by ecstatic dogs on leads, some owners semi -running to keep up with their joyful dogs.
But a huge St Bernard has other ideas, jerks free of the leash, and runs full tilt into an elderly lady sitting nearby, in an old fashioned striped canvas deckchair, complete with canvas canopy. She’s shrouded in towels, scarves, enormous sun hat, huge dark sunglasses, long green skirt topped with a long-sleeved red and white striped shirt, and seemingly absorbed in her knitting. So the express train weight of a runaway St Bernard capsizes the old dear, chair and all. Confusion reigns.
I dash over, kick the St Bernard who yelps and looks confused. I glare at the panting, red faced owner who has finally lumbered up, ineffectually waving his arms, and too out of breath to do anything but make a feeble lunge for his runaway hound, who promptly takes off again, at speed.
I leave him to it, and set about righting the capsized chair and its bewildered occupant.
Once the old dear is set to rights, reunited with hat, sunglasses, knitting, towels and cushions, I take a good look. She has the whitest skin I’ve ever seen. No wonder she’s shrouded herself from the sun’s invasive rays. She’s even wearing red and white socks – in this heat.
“Thanks you, my dear,” she says slowly in heavily accented English. “That was a surprise, for sure! Thank you for rescuing me. My name is Klara. And your name, my dear?”
“Umm, I’m Susie. Are you here alone? Should I fetch you some water, or a coffee maybe?” I gesture to the mobile coffee cart further down the beach.
“No, no, I’m alright, thank you. Just a little adventure. Nothing serious. Wait ‘til I tell Klaus. He will laugh a lot, I know,” she says cheerfully. She points to the surf where a sturdy old man is emerging onto the beach. He’s wearing striped red and white baggy boardshorts, has a green and white striped bandanna tied around his head. His bushy, white beard cascades downwards, pushed upwards and outwards by his splendid, solid tummy .
“Oh, Oh, Klara! I go for a swim and what happens? You are alright? “ Again the heavy accent. German maybe? Or Scandinavian perhaps?
“Ja, Klaus, I’m okay, Susie here chased away the dog and helped me up and all is well. Don’t worry,” and she beamed at her husband, who huffed out a big sigh of relief .
Klara hands Klaus a towel, and he starts to towel off.
“We do love the beach, especially after our hard Northern winter,” Klara informs me, “but I have to be careful of the sun. Klaus gets outside more than I do, so he can wear the swimming costume. And you, my dear? You are living here? You are very brown. So your skin is used to the African sun.”
Klaus has departed with the beach bag towards the change rooms.
“You are here alone? Where is your family?”
“ Ummm – I …. I …. “ I can feel my eyes brimming.
“I’m so sorry my dear,” says Klara, removing her sunglasses, and examining me with a piercing, clear blue gaze. “Life is cruel, ja? It is especially difficult at Christmas. But I will remember you at Christmas time. Next year will be easier, I am sure”.
Tears well up again, and “Sorry, gotta go, “ I mumble, “take care, look after yourselves, have a nice holiday.”
Klara nods, carefully replaces her glasses and resumes her knitting .
I stumble off in the direction of my bag, stop at the mobile cart for a coffee to regain my composure, and find a nearby sand dune where I can settle down to read. I look around for the old couple when I leave the beach, but they’re nowhere to be seen.
That was a year ago, and now its Boxing Day again.
On Christmas Eve I watched the Royal Command Variety show, drank too much whiskey, and went to bed too late. Even though I slept heavily I was vaguely conscious of a thumping and bumping coming from the roof. Burglars? Stray cats? My whiskey induced coma held me captive in bed.
The strangest thing happened on Christmas morning.
I surfaced pretty late, and once my blurry gaze cleared, I saw … At the end of my bed? No way! A lumpy parcel wrapped in Christmas wrapping paper, tied with tinsel and sporting a prickly sprig of real holly over the knot. What? Real holly? It prickled like hell. I sucked my bleeding finger as I hunted for a gift tag. There was no gift tag.
I blinked. Too much 100 Pipers is one thing, and a hefty hangover is an old friend, but a mystery Christmas gift on the end of my bed was another thing entirely. I staggered through the house, checking for open doors, or smashed windows but found nothing untoward.
After a mega strong cup of tea, I cautiously snipped through the tinsel and jumped back. Nothing happened. So: not a parcel bomb. I prodded the parcel with my scissors. The paper crackled but nothing happened. Okaaaayyyy – time to unwrap. I discovered a crisp green and white beach towel, wrapped around a knitted floppy red sunhat. Perfect for the Beach on Boxing Day. And, the perfect Christmas gift for me. Huh. Strange.
My foggy brain couldn’t deal with the mystery, so I went to the beach, with my new beach gear. Another perfect sunny day on Melkbos beach. This time no runaway dogs, or elderly Northern tourists.
For two years running, on Christmas morning I’d wake up to a mystery, lumpy parcel at the foot of my bed. The next year I found a beautiful hand knitted red and green cotton bikini; the following year a light green cotton beach wrap, plus a pair of hand knitted socks – you guessed it – in red and green.
But on Year Four – no mystery parcel. Because I woke up next to my new husband Sam, and now I have my own family. We have prezzies galore and mammoth lunches, Family Christmas with bells on. And I’ve made it a family tradition that we have to go to Melkbos Beach on Boxing Day. Its non-negotiable.
When I told Sam my story, and he was as baffled as I am. You don’t suppose? he wondered ….. well, who knows? Does it matter? Christmas time is a time for family, gifts and the joy of giving.
I am sick and tired of discussing Covid, worrying about Covid, listening to news about Covid, and you probably are too. So I’ve dug up an old story to celebrate the beginning of our South African summer, and briefly take our minds off you-know-what.
“I really don’t understand you,” grumbled Yvonne, “first I can’t get you to wear your new Hawaiian shirt, then I can’t get you to wear anything else, and now – now! Heaven knows why? – you’ve gone and bought another identical shirt! What’s going on, Harry? Are you losing your mind – you’ve got one perfectly good orange , white and blue Hawaiian shirt, why buy a second one ? and in the same colours too – if you must have another Hawaiian shirt why not buy a different colour? I’m beginning to think you must be losing it. Harry? Harry!! Are you listening? I suppose not, you never do, you and that bloody newspaper!”
“Mmm,” murmured Harry, fractionally lowering the newspaper, and gazing mildly at his agitated wife. “Wassat? “
“I knew it! You never heard a word, you never pay any attention, I don’t know why I bother!” Yvonne viciously swooped onto the breakfast dishes and marched off to the dishwasher. Harry shrugged, and began smoothing out the newspaper prior to folding it neatly into a rectangle. He always did this. The small, meaningless ritual soothed him amidst the domestic hurricanes.
“I’m off for my morning walk – see you later,” he said, rising speedily and bolting out of the kitchen.
“And that’s another thing : why this sudden passion for walking? “ yelled Yvonne. “For years I begged you to join Walk for Life, but would you? No: of course not! But now you’re retired, you go and walk for hours. I give up!” The only reply was the throaty growl of Harry’s precious diesel bakkie/truck reversing out of the driveway. He drove sedately to the nearby Builders’ Warehouse, parked neatly in his favourite spot, and walked purposefully into the store.
“Morning”, said the Security Guard, echoed by the ladies at the Information Counter, and two nearby cashiers .
“Morning all,” beamed Harry, making a beeline for his haven. He arrived in the Outdoor Living section and fondly surveyed his two most favourite objects in the universe: a pair of striped beach loungers placed invitingly under a gaily striped umbrella, in front of the display of braai/barbecue equipment.
He paused a moment to decide: which would it be today? The yellow, orange and white stripes? Or should he use the blue, white and yellow striped lounger? Both had padded seat and back-rest cushions, and a perfectly angled downward sloping leg and foot rest. Whoever designed the chair deserved a medal. Either way, his shirt toned in with both of them, so it didn’t really matter. He opted for the orange chair. He needed bright cheerful colours after his stormy morning.
Harry settled himself in the orange lounger, nudged the back rest cushion up a fraction – aaahh! That was just right. He wriggled his bum into the maximum comfort position, lightly clasped his hands over his boep/bulging tummy, and breathed out a deep sigh of relief. This was more like it. This was how a man’s retirement should be . A bit of relaxation. Peace and quiet. He didn’t mind the muzak the store played, he quite liked it, he wasn’t a fussy man. His eyelids drooped.
A little later he drowsily opened them, and focused on Mr Venter, the Floor Manager, who tenderly enquired if he could send the cleaning lady with a cup of coffee for Oom/Uncle, respectful generic title? “Baie dankie,” said Harry, “that would be nice.” Man, this was the life!
Funny to think how it all clicked into place two weeks ago when he’d come into the store for six rawl plugs. He‘d felt horribly conspicuous in his ridiculous new, bright blue and orange floral Hawaiian shirt. Khaki was just fine, so far as Harry was concerned. Maybe blue, at a pinch, and a white shirt for Sundays. That was okay. But of course he’d given in under Yvonne’s attack: “You’re retired now Harry, I’ve bought you a new shirt
“Harry, no need to wear your old khaki shirts – put this on. “
Harry slunk into Builders’ Warehouse, and slunk down the aisle, pausing to linger by the Braai Section, like he always did. His eye was drawn to the two brightly striped loungers under their gay umbrella. The orange colour brought a fleeting memory of the bright orange lolly ices his Ouma/Granny would buy him as a Saturday treat. The chairs looked very comfortable. What if he? no – he was in here to buy rawl plugs, not to mess around with beach loungers.
En route to the cash-till he paused again besides the loungers. Oh, what the hell, he decided and quietly sidled under the umbrella. He carefully sat on the orange chair. Very comfortable, he thought. “Oom must swing his legs up too,” instructed a patrolling saleslady ,“then Oom will really feel how comfy our loungers can be. That’s right,” she approved. “Now lay back and close your eyes. See? Instant holiday, né? You test-drive it for a minute or two, and I guarantee you’ll walk out with two flatpacks under your arm!” and she bustled off.
Harry must have drifted off at this point, because when he opened his eyes, a small circle of onlookers surrounded the display, pointing at the dozing pensioner, commenting on how his Hawaiian shirt perfectly matched the chairs. Wives were urging husbands to grab a flatpack quickly before they sold out, and the hubbub brought the Floor Manager at a rapid trot.
He opened his mouth to call Security to eject the cheeky old man from his display, but when he saw the rapidly dwindling pile of flatpacks, he changed his mind. “See,” he announced to the growing circle of spectators, “our chairs are so comfy you just have to relax! Ask Oom here – he’s proof!” and he gestured towards the bewildered pensioner. “No problem, Meneer/Sir, you’re welcome to relax on our loungers any time, you maar/justcarry on, no rush. Enjoy yourself.”
Harry couldn’t have left the store even if he’d wanted to. He was hemmed in by eager customers and trapped on the lounger. When the last flatpack had been snatched up, the Floor Manager homed in on Harry, and suggested he return to the store on Monday, once they’d organized a re-supply of the loungers. “Please Meneer,“ he begged “ and be sure to wear your Hawaiian shirt, it’s perfect!”
And thus Harry found a temporary harbour from the stormy seas of domestic life.
Nina & I enjoyed a lovely sunny day out at a country market. The Bo Berg Market, Piketberg, to be precise. The sun shone, the Spring flowers bloomed brightly, the breeze whispered, people milled around the small tables displaying fruit, veg, home bakes, jam, pickles, pot plants. I bought an unusual mini-rosette Malta geranium to add to the collection on my patio, and an adventurous bunch of Rutabaga. Living dangerously, on top of the mountain. Which we were.
But the real danger was yet to come. Entirely carried away by the plaas/farm, country vibe and general festivity, I agreed to Nina’s suggestion to sample the local braaied/barbecued snoek. Quite forgetting that I don’t like snoek. Why? Take a look at the photo below. More bones than you would ever imagine possible in one small serving of braaied fish.
Snoek is a Cape ‘thing’. I tried it for the first time at Port Nolloth, whilst on a bus tour of the famous Spring flowers, during the mid 1980s, and was totally disconcerted at the vast number of bones that had to be negotiated before I even got near a morsel of fish. Since then I have avoided snoek.
To compound matters, snoek is braaied with a glaze of apricot jam – don’t ask me why, it just is. Like I said: braaied snoek is a Cape ‘thing’. The two toothless Tannies, who were supervising their husbands braaing the snoek, warmly invited us to join them in an upcoming market, a Snoek en Patat Fees /Snoek and Potato Festival, held annually every June, nearby. They guaranteed they’d be there, braaing more snoek!
We smiled, and said, “Ja Tannie, sekerlik/ Yes, Aunty, of course,” and wandered off with our lunch.
On this occasion I managed to eat about .05 grams of fish, and emerged hungry, covered in apricot jam, and reeking of braaied snoek. Plus I had a raging thirst due to the salted fish, and my water bottle was long since emptied. Gah! That’s it: never again!
Notwithstanding this lunch disaster, the sun shone, and the local band played on with diligence and volume. A typical Boland band, music for all occasions: a rousing mixture of Boeremusiek/traditional Afrikaans music, with rock songs. Something for everyone.
Country markets: you can’t beat ’em. P.S. I’m relieved to report that we never made it to the Snoek en Patat Fees. Not a chance. Now or ever.
I’m currently in love with the short-short format: stories that come in at 500 words, or less. So, to make a change from my book themed ramblings, I thought I’d introduce a dash of fiction once a month. I hope you enjoy this first short-short story. It comes in at 438 words. I’m keen to know what you think of the idea. I hope you like it, because I’ve got more, tucked away in my hard-drive.
I should add that this story was prompted by my recent viewing of the movie The Bourne Supremacy. Even if you haven’t seen the movie the plot is not that hard to follow. Enjoy!
JASON BOURNE DRIVES A WHEELIE BIN
Vroom- vroom- eee – skreeee – ka-dooom – vroom – graunch – skreeee: he’s wrenching the wheel left, the crappy old Lada taxi shudders with the strain, ricochets off a silver Volvo, slides on an icy patch, lumbers into an intersection, misses a garbage truck by a whisker, gathers speed on the downhill gradient – his foot flattens the accelerator pedal – sweat stings his eyes, his hands cramp on the wheel, he’s welded to the wheel. His eyes flick up to the rear-view mirror. He’s lost the black Jeep, by some miracle he’s lost the Jeep! Moscow’s snowy streets careen past. He needs to get off this motorway, hide, lose himself, ditch this bright yellow Lada, fade in amongst the muffled walkers on the pavements, bury his hands in his pocket, tuck his chin down into his scarf, become another Tovarich. He’s Jason Bourne. He’s on the run. He’s in Moscow. Someone – he doesn’t know who – is chasing him – could be CIA, could be Russian police, could be Russian Mafia doing the dirty work for his own side, could be … could be … possibilities swirl round his head. His knees ache from colliding with the dashboard, his leg burns after the badly judged jump onto the garbage scow, a molten glass needle stabs his right shoulder every time he turns the wheel, but he’s okay, he’s done it – he’s Jason Bourne and ….
“Jason! Dammit – are you deaf? JASON !!” roars his mother. “How many times do I have to – oh never mind – Jason! Focus! its Wednesday night: the wheelie bin – you haven’t taken out the wheelie bin ! It’s the only thing I ask you to do, and every week it’s the same, nag-nag-nag, why do I have to nag you all the time? “
Jason Brown’s eyes slowly focus on the flushed face, take in the angry arms-on-hips-pose, vaguely register the pitched tone, the raspy breathing.
“Okay, okay – I’m doing it” he mutters, sliding off his bed with all the speed and grace of an exhausted sloth. I bet Jason Bourne never had to push stupid wheelie bins around, I bet he never had a mother who yelled at him all the time, I bet ….
A red-hot pain at the back of his knees registers. He jerks round. His Mother is advancing on him, raised arm drawing back, ready to lash the sjambok against his calves again. There’s a look of cold fury that’s drawn her lips against her bared teeth, whitened her face, made the veins on her neck stand out like cables: Jason Brown runs like hell, runs for his life.
For years I’ve been loudly proclaiming the virtues of microwave cooking, and informing all who will listen, that I cook 75% of my food in the microwave. Soup and porridge are the exceptions, but other than these, watch me press that button, watch that turntable spin! But today I experienced a disaster of note. I planned to make a baked milk pudding, incorporating angel hair fine pasta, and sago. I thought I’d be clever and cut down on oven baking time, by pre-cooking the pasta and the sago, before constructing the dish. The pasta worked like a dream. I’ve been cooking pasta in the microwave for years.
Now for the sago. I put the soaked sago into a microwave cooking pot, gave it 3 minutes at 100% power. All I wanted was a pre-cook. When I opened the pot ….. Eeeeekkk – what was this? A translucent, rubbery, faintly bluish mass met my startled eyes. I prodded it gingerly with a spoon, to which it adhered instantly in a rubbery, quivering coating. Ummmm ….. The general effect was of a strange jellyfish from deepest, uncharted ocean depths.
No thanks! With difficulty I scraped the trembling, gluey mass out of the pot and into the bin. Let me tell you, the sago didn’t give up without a brave fight. It clung grimly to the spoon, and the plastic pot, despite prolonged soaking. I can authoritatively state: You cannot, and should not, cook sago in a microwave oven. You have been warned!