My maternal grandmother Vere, towards the end of her life, was a thin reedy woman who wore Liberty print dresses, chain-smoked Rothmans plains and coughed dryly. Tidy and conservative, she played endless games of patience sitting on her neatly made-up bed, using packs of small cards which she dealt onto the candlewick bedspread. Her first husband, my maternal grandfather, was one Frank de Villiers, of whom I know nothing beyond one or two badly faded photographs. He died in the late 1920s, when Lesley was seven.
In my mother’s much-pruned photo album, I find a picture of a man standing in a field. His posture is curiously asymmetrical and his attention is entirely on the toddler at his feet. The fact that there is only one toddler suggests that it might be Dorothy, who was eighteen months or so older than Lesley, and I conclude that Vere, my grandmother, must have been pregnant at the time that this picture was taken. By scanning the picture and electronically enhancing it, I have produced the image of a face. He looks downward with an expression that I can only interpret as affection, and a slight smile turns the corners of his mouth upwards.
I have no memory of my mother mentioning her father, or the pain and confusion that his death must have caused, though I recall the idea, perhaps from Lesley, that Frank was Vere’s one true love, and that she had never forgotten her desire for him. Lesley did tell me that towards the end, Vere looked forward to death and the possibility of being reunited with Frank. Was he, like so many men of his time, cold and unemotional? It is hard to say, although this frozen moment in front of a camera suggests otherwise.
Very much later, after her daughters had grown up and left home, Vere married Jim Cunningham, a Scotsman. There is no image of Grandpa Jim, as we called him, in the photo albums, and I find that I cannot remember his face at all. I met him only briefly, at Luitingh’s Guest Farm, where he and Vere had, it seems, retired.
Here I find a conundrum: Had Vere and Jim come to join Lesley and her children, perhaps to solace them, or had they been at Luitingh’s all along, retirees living in the crumbling remains of Archie Hopper’s glory, and had Lesley run away to mother? I could easily settle the issue by phoning Raymond, who is four years older than I am, and probably remembers the events better than I do, but I find that I am loath to do so.
At any event, Luitingh’s Guest Farm, by the time we arrived there in my mother’s small dark-blue Fordson van, was largely inhabited by old people who had come there to see out, it seems to me, their last of their days in the subtropical warmth of that region beneath the colourful canopies of the many flowering trees. Among these ageing people I can remember Mrs Nevill, and Mrs Crewe who had rinsed white hair, and Alida’s father, Oupa Nel, an ancient barrel of a man with pee-stained trousers who shouted at us in Afrikaans. A formidable patriarch, he had fought in the Anglo-Boer War. Others pass through my memory as if in a parade beneath the vast bougainvillea pergola in front of the main building, but they have no names. This nameless and often faceless parade of mainly women, for they tended to survive their men-folk, seem to me like ghosts, shuffling from the dining room, where they ate Alida Luitingh’s unspeakable food, to the decaying ablution blocks and rondavels in which they conducted their private business or sat alone.
My brother and I were sent to the White River Primary School, a dual stream state school seven miles away, which dispensed Christian National Education and corporal punishment. Every school day my mother drove us the mile to Plaston, where we boarded the school bus, driven by a thin irritable man whom we called Oom Thys. We were in the English stream, which constituted about a quarter of the school population, but our teachers were Afrikaans: Mrs Badenhorst, Mrs De Lange, Mr Grove, and another, a woman whose name I have forgotten along with all the other details of her presence and of my school life in the year that she taught us.
In this scratched photograph, my brother and I stand at an airport, with a propeller-driven aeroplane in the background. The picture must have been taken during one of our frequent transits between the extreme ends of the country. Raymond wears the blazer of the White River Primary School, which was green. The blazer bears the badge or crest of the school. The crest is surmounted by the winged head of a springbuck or other antelope facing forward. The shield, divided into three compartments, contains images of Legogote, a high granite peak visible from the town, an orange tree (with fruit) and the rising sun. Below it, on a scroll, but unreadable in the picture, are the words LABOR EST ARS, a local variant on the ‘Liberation through Labour’ theme. I can remember the school motto because it was part of the school anthem, which I sang many times – not to know it was a punishable offence. I would not have been able to recollect the crest without the aid of the picture, but the picture has allowed me to remember it. After all, it accompanied me daily for seven years. I remember in particular that the background to the three pictures was sky blue, and how the badge-thread gleamed when new.
I recall the way the orange threads of the borders stood proud becoming the first to collect dirt, so that eventually the high points of those ridges became more begrimed than the lower-lying parts, emphasizing, somehow, their grubbiness. The picture of the badge, however, does not prompt any memory of the winged buck. Perhaps if I were given scratched black-and-white photographs of Mrs Crewe, Mrs Nevill and their ghostly cohorts I would recall something of them, some detail of blotched or powdered skin, of dark-blue shoe or bent back.