decouple quartet flashy

Although Anton and Lesley were a couple under strain, the breaking-point was not a sudden snap but a drawn-out and difficult passage, and was to be occasioned by the relationship they formed with another couple, the Von E’s, who moved into the area around 1964.

This couple had a farm in the sublime landscape of the Elandsfontein valley, but at the beginning of the 1960s, SAPPI, the paper conglomerate, built a vast factory in the valley and the stench of their activities filled the entire setting like soup in a bowl. Even driving through the valley, which lay on the road to the Highveld, was a difficult experience occasioning breath-holding, closed car-windows and retching. The Von E’s bought an architect-built house lined with tiles by Esias Bosch, arguably the country’s greatest potter, on the outskirts of White River, and lived there in considerable style. 279 camemThey were wealthy and genuinely aristocratic in the sense that both were from the ranks of those regarded as nobility in their respective countries of origin; they had already arrived at that to which others aspire. As neither of them had religious or artistic yearnings and their fabulously good-looking children were already out of school, there was nowhere really for them to go, so they gave their lives, with finesse, creativity and dedication, to pleasure.

These pleasures were very similar to those that might have been sought by Pliny and his uncle, or by Lord Dalhousie: culture – in the form of literature, music and theatre, good food, bathing, hunting, conversation, travel and sex. They appreciated quality and could afford it, and they were pleased at tasty food and fine clothes; they enjoyed the sight, flavour and intoxicating effect of a peach rolling in champagne, accompanied by grilled prawns, and ate foods strange to my then uneducated palate, but which are now commonly found in cities wherever the global system of distribution reaches, even the suburb in which I now live: pasta, ham and salami from Italy, cheese and wine from France, sausage and beer from Germany, caviar from the Ukraine, olive oil and goat’s milk cheese from Greece or Portugal, literature, clothing and music from the entire European continent.

All of this was done without ostentation and in the very best of taste – there was nothing flashy or bourgeois about them, and their gorgeous house, set high on a hill at the back of White River, far from showing off, turned itself away from the town towards the view, which faced out over a deep valley with fields and stands of trees and successive hills and round-topped granite koppies and on into the blue distance. It seemed to be in another world altogether from that in which the solid white citizens of White River lived. To meet S shopping in White River was for me a peculiarly disjunctive experience, for it seemed to me that the shops there and the narrow range of goods they offered belonged to an altogether different world to that in which she lived; it was as though she were only there on sufferance, driven by common necessity to buy fresh vegetables, meat, milk or fruit.

S was a slender, good-looking woman. She was intelligent and well spoken, with steel-grey hair, large alert eyes and very long eyelashes. B was older – in his sixties – and had a benign attitude, at least towards me, although he always seemed distant, as if he really wanted to be somewhere else and and was just going there when I interrupted him. Like the bohemians of my earlier years, they despised the bourgeoisie, but extended this feeling to all persons of lower status, especially blacks. Along with the artists and leftists they regarded themselves as superior, members of an elite, but unlike them, their ascendancy was inherited rather than acquired through creativity or mental effort or activism. It was perhaps because of this shared culture of arrogance that I never felt uncomfortable in their home when I spent time there during the holidays, back in White River from boarding school. 

S had spotted Anton at a party, my mother told me, and it seems she had decided to add him to the repertoire of pleasures she enjoyed. When Anton was on good behaviour, or in a social situation, he glittered. Tall, beautiful and smart, he stood out from the White River mean as the Eiffel Tower stands out from Paris. Whatever the reasons, and we cannot know them in any meaningful detail, Lesley and Anton soon became friends of theirs, and the two couples spent much time at their house. They came to the farm, and to our less beautiful house, less often.

Anton aged thirty-something, Lesley in her forties, S in her fifties and B in his sixties, spanned four decades. Over a period of perhaps four and a half years, this quartet acted out the details of a psycho-drama that had features of a bedroom farce, out of sight of the children. I do not know what they got up to, nor do I know why Lesley remained in that situation for all those years.


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