hacienda augustine silt

The time between our arrival at Luitingh’s Guest Farm and my mother’s marriage to Anton Luitingh Junior, whom I shall call Anton from now on, is a jumble of unconnected images. The first building in which we stayed for any length of time was a pair of rondavels joined by a corridor, like Siamese twins. I remember in particular the floor of this building, which was made of cement that had been worked to a shiny smoothness, over many years of polishing and sweeping. On hot summer days I would lie with my cheek pressed against this burnished surface, trying to absorb from it the coolness that it seemed to draw from the earth.

The rooms, built on a slope, were set into the hill, and behind them was a narrow space between the embankment and the whitewashed walls. My brother and I played there with toy cars, Dinky Toys and Corgis. We had very few toys by the standards of today’s middle-class children, but he being older had had more time to accumulate them, so he always had more toys than I did. I found this unfair but had no way of expressing my sense of injustice, which I can still relive as a feeling of pressure in my chest.

The flowering trees tended to have pods and of them I have clear images: there were long ones like crooked boats with many slatted seats in them, and there were some which were perfectly boat-shaped, like the clinker-built dinghy my father used for fishing at Clifton, but which were unsailable because they closed up into kayaks in contact with water and turned over.

In the Main Lounge were many decks of cards. These were used for playing canasta, and the old ladies would sometimes let me play. I also used the cards to build card-houses, sometimes as much as eight cards high, in the darkened and deserted lounge when the curtains were drawn to conserve coolness. I have an image of the tatty carpet in imitation of an oriental style, the cards rising above it, and the floor beyond gleaming with a reflection of the narrow gap between dark red curtains.

103 Anton in deckchairThese and many other images rise up like trout, but the narratives that might bind them into a comprehensible whole are invisible in the murk, like the barbel that lurked in the swimming pool, which itself eventually cracked, dried up and filled with weeds.

During the time between our arrival and my mother’s marriage to Anton, several events occurred, although I cannot say when they happened or in what sequence. Anton Luitingh senior died. Jim Cunningham died. Vere came and went. Raymond and I came and went, spending some time, I think, on the Cope farm near Mooi River in Natal. Vere bought Lesley a new car, a Ford Consul. My mother and Anton fell in love. Our status changed from guests to something else, to farmer’s wife and family. Anton and Lesley designed and built the large house overlooking the now dishevelled rondavels, which was to become our home until 1969. Under the aesthetic guidance of Lesley, Anton, who looked more like a fantasy of an Argentinean rancher than an Afrikaans farmer, created with his own sweat and ingenuity the hacienda which was to be the site of their difficulties during that decade.

I am astonished at the amount of detail other people can re-call from their lives, especially those who have access to vivid memories dating from before they were six. But what surprises me even more is the sense of narrative coherence that seems to couch these memories. There is a steady story into which these glimpses fit like trucks in a train. While I can remember the smell and texture of mangoes, the busyness of shiny black ants, the spiny fuzz that coated the wrinkled interior of Lowveld chestnut pods, I cannot say when these impressions were gathered, or whether they are derived from single or multiple experiences, or whether they have, in fact, any basis at all.

When St Augustine was asked ‘What is time?’, he replied, ‘Well, when nobody asks me, I know what it is; but the minute somebody asks me I can’t produce a definition that’s adequate.’ When someone asked Charan Singh, the grandson and successor of Sawan Singh, the same question, he said ‘It’s about 7.30,’ and giggled. Then he said: ‘Actually, brother, there is no such thing as time. It is just a concept we hold to explain change.’ Charan Singh was to become Lesley’s spiritual teacher as well as mine, but that was later.

If time is a river, then mine is silted up with forgetting and does not flow consistently in one direction. On this river, I am adrift in the mist in a small leaky boat.


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