The town of White River had a high street, a suburban area and not much else. On the lower side of town was a street where Indian traders lived and had their shops. Beyond that were a chemist, a garage, a clothing store, two cafés, by which I mean food shops run by persons of continental extraction, a toy and stationery store, and a bakery. Over the road were a bottle-store, a hardware store and other shops of the kind found in small towns in South Africa at that time. The shops did business according to the formulae of apartheid, and their clientele and the types of transactions permitted were specified in detail and enforced to the letter by the police, who were situated a block beyond the bakery.
The police were fearsome people in uniforms not much different from those worn at during the Second World War, and I was already predisposed to dislike them because it was they, or rather their plain-clothes spies and detectives, who harassed, investigated, questioned, listed, banned, jailed and, in the final analysis, could even execute by hanging my parents and their Communist friends. The White River police chief went by the nickname of Hitler – a title affectionately conferred by the townsfolk and cheerfully embraced by him. He kept a picture of Hitler, my mother told me, on the wall in his office, grew a toothbrush moustache and combed his hair in the manner of his role model.
Behind the police station, which was built of ochre face-brick, and the magistrate’s court where the law legitimated the activities of ‘Hitler’ and his minions, stood the Witrivierse Laerskool or White River Primary School, as it was less often called. I was a pupil there from 1958 until 1964, after which I was sent as a boarder to the South African College School (SACS) in Cape Town. Raymond stayed in White River, moving in 1961 to Rob Ferreira Höer Skool, which was a little further from the centre of town. The high point of that high street consisted, for me, of two adjacent shops: the toy and stationery shop, which provided Dinky Toys, Mechano sets, Corgi cars, model aeroplane kits (both plastic balsa wood); and the bakery that stood next door to it, which baked white bread, raisin bread, brown bread, buns, Copenhagens and the like, all of them, as I remember it, steaming hot and full of the scent of baking, given off by the dying yeasts. Behind the bakery was the barber shop, where my hair was cut for two shillings, later two and six. The haircut was invariant: short back and sides, long on top. When the barber had finished, he combed our hair with La Pebra’s Fixing Cream, a glue that dried and set the hair to the hardness of a beetle’s shell, so that it could be knocked with a knuckle to make a satisfying tok-tok sound.
The bread that our sandwiches were made from was not hot and fresh like the bread from the Witriver Bakkery, but it gave us carbohydrate. Along with protein, vitamins and exercise, it was thought that this what children principally needed. I did not get vitamin pills, as my twins now do, but had to get by on such as were already in the food.
The food on Luitingh’s Guest Farm was, to my taste, somewhere between hideous and unbearably hideous. As the farm fell apart about them, the Luitinghs were forced to cut costs. Anton’s mother Alida, whom we called Aunty Lila, and who supervised the cuisine, favoured cheaper cuts of meat: oxtail, with its glutinous lumps, was served as a main meal together with a starch and an over-boiled and sugar-coated vegetable, and I find within me a strong sensation of sitting in the hot but shady dining-room with its high thatched roof, the only diner left, my unfinished plate in front of me, my mouth full of some dull carbohydrate I cannot swallow for fear of arousing fully the gag reflex which hovers, primed and ready at the back of my mouth.
The photograph shows Aunty Lila long after she had outlived two husbands and her son’s marriage to Lesley. There she stands supported by Lina, her devoted servant, and another, at the old-age home where she spent her last years. She is much thinner than she was when she ran the Guest Farm. Aunty Lila’s cooking was of a kind that is much loved by certain traditional Afrikaans families, and consisted of dishes like beans and potatoes boiled together, sugared pumpkin, and yellow rice with raisins in it, along with meat or curried brawn.
Those who have grown up with this kind of food often look back on it with nostalgia, associating it with the presence of their mothers. It seems quite likely that my revulsion for it has little to do with taste receptors, although these receptors are not similar in all humans. It has, I think, a symbolic meaning for me; it is entangled with the absence of the father.
Aunty Lila did not do the cooking on the Guest Farm herself. It was done by cooks, men who wore white shorts and white drill tops with red piping on them, and thong-and-motor-car-tyre sandals. They were assisted by their wives and siblings – women who washed dishes, scrubbed and swept. Men served the remaining guests at the table, and were called ‘boys’ by everyone except Lesley, Raymond and me. I do not remember the names of most of these servants, and, with the partial exceptions of two boys of my own age called Max and Million, I was never able to cross the barriers that were set up between black and white, guests and servants, or speakers of siSwati and English.