I cannot find in my memory any image of my parents together. They separated around the time of my sixth birthday, and my mother set off with my brother Raymond and me in her Fordson van for the other side of the country, a journey of some days.
Leaving behind us the city, the house on the beach where we had lived, the amiable society of my friends who lived in adjacent beach bungalows, and all the details of our previous lives except for what could be packed into the small van, we arrived at Luitingh’s Guest Farm, near White River, in what was then known as the Eastern Transvaal.
The guest farm consisted of perhaps twenty rondavels and double rondavels set in acres of lush subtropical garden with many flowering trees – flame trees, jacarandas, pride of India, coral trees, hibiscus, frangipanis. There was a big central building which housed kitchens, lounge and dining-room. These were surrounded by a working farm with orchards in which citrus, mangoes, guavas, bananas, plantains and other tropical fruits were grown. There were sheds and workshops, tractors and machinery, and piles of the iron junk that farms accumulate.
My mother Lesley was not simply putting as much distance between herself and my father as national geography would allow. She was also returning to a place she had been to before, at perhaps the age of seventeen, when she had enjoyed a holiday at Hopper’s Guest Farm, as it had then been named. I have a family photograph album that records this trip, the only such album in which my mother also wrote, in white ink on the black pages. The handwriting is still so unformed that I can scarcely recognise it as hers.
She records a trip through the Eastern Transvaal in the company of my two grandmothers. The presence of Aunt May, my father’s mother, is not to be attributed to any relationship, at this stage, between my parents. My mother and father were second cousins, so there were other familial ties binding them. Also present were my mother’s elder sister Dorothy and someone called Esme. The undated trip takes place in the early days of the Second World War. They visit Badplaas, a spa. One photograph shows that my mother, a good-looking woman, had attracted some male attendants. The men in the pictures wear uniforms or clothing cut in the style of uniforms. When they ascend a mountain that rises in front of the hotel, the man who accompanies them carries a pith helmet. The entries in white ink are simple: ‘Sunshine was plentiful,’ or ‘We all got burned and peeled.’ The women look lazy and relaxed at the baths.
Soon they moved on to Hopper’s Guest Farm. ‘Each room,’ she writes, ‘was a separate rondavel – spread out in a warm tropical setting. Flowers of every description were in bloom – bougainvillea running riot – fruit was plentiful – and a basket of mangoes meant nothing to the five of us. We sunbathed beside the swimming bath, finding the water too cold after being spoilt at Badplaas! And besides, it had fishes in it.’ On the next page she writes, ‘What could be more pleasant on a hot sultry afternoon – than to lie in a hammock in the shade of a beautiful jacaranda with a book and a box of chocolates?’
The photograph shows Dorothy and, presumably, Esme among lush vegetation. Years later, my mother told me that she had left my father because he was ‘a cold, unemotional man,’ and I wonder whether the memory of that warm and sultry idyll had not served as a beacon, drawing her back to the scene of her earlier happiness.
By the time we arrived at the Guest Farm, it had changed hands. Archie Hopper, a keen horticulturist and noted eccentric, had sold the farm as a going concern to Anton Luitingh, an engineer, as I recall, from Ermelo. In buying the guest-farm, Luitingh had acquired a village and fiefdom, with all its structures, irrigation canals, dirt roads and, behind the koppie, a settlement of vassals. The thatched rondavels were made of wattle and daub, like the houses of the workers, but were whitewashed and provided with cement floors. Hopper, who was elderly by the time he sold the farm, had not put as much energy or money into maintenance as he should have, and the buildings were being re-absorbed by the subtropical environment. The thatch and beams were infested with termites, and I remember the clicking and crunching of their activities as I lay in my iron bed beside my brother in the dark. Fungus and rot set up home in anything that had once been alive. Schistosomes from the irrigation canals sought to colonise human bodies with bilharzia. Rust ate holes in the fly mesh, admitting whining mosquitoes and big fluttering moths. Floors cracked as they subsided.
Old Luitingh, called Grootbaas by the staff, did not have the energy to tackle the decay. He had arrived with his wife Alida, a retired hospital matron, and his son, also called Anton or Kleinbaas, an epithet that clung to him after his father had died. But Anton senior had also brought with him, as I reconstruct it, the throat cancer which was soon to kill him, aided by an endless stream of cigarettes from a box with a picture of a sailor on it.
It was in Luitingh’s decline, twenty or so years after the idyllic vacation shown in my mother’s album, that we arrived. The nine-hole golf course was gone. The tennis court was eroded and unserviceable, its fence holed and sagging. There were cracks in everything. But the Guest Farm was still functioning, as though Hopper’s momentum, conforming with Newton’s laws, had continued until, meeting a resistance equal to it, it was slowly grinding to a halt.
I cannot recall our actual arrival at Luitingh’s Guest Farm, nor can I find any but the faintest and most uncertain images of the journey, which may be confused with other such journeys, because my brother and I subsequently became migrants moving from one corner of the country to the opposite and back again at the whim of the adult world. What is clear is that the journey brought with it a cloud of forgetting. Beyond or in this cloud lies my early childhood. The cloud is not impenetrable – there are perhaps ten or twelve memories, or memories of memories located in it. I play on the sand. I ride a tricycle in the playroom of Delphine and Edwin Braun, although their faces, like the faces of my other friends from that period, are gone. I go behind the house with V, and we pee for one other, and I put my finger into her vagina, which is warm and damp. I find no image of her face. I remember the gleam on brass fittings on the machinery that pumped sewage up from the houses along the beach, along with the smell, which mixed Brasso, Jeyes Fluid and, faintly, lavatories, but of the face of David Klink, who ran and maintained the pump-house, there is no trace.